They are the urban legends of the dance studio: glass in a dancer's pointe shoes, ribbons cut before she goes onstage. The film Black Swan took things a step further, depicting a dancer so wracked with obsessive jealousy that she turns into a monster.
While these caricatures of the jealous ballerina are far from reality, it is not surprising that most dancers will battle bouts of green envy at least a few times in their careers. “It happens to all of us," says American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski, who despite signing a contract with ABT at 16 admits she's felt envious of fellow dancers. “Especially when you are at the point of transitioning from a student to a professional dancer."
When Lilliana Hagerman auditioned for Orlando Ballet School's summer intensive, she felt overwhelmingly intimidated. “The other dancers were all so beautiful," remembers Hagerman, now a dancer with Kansas City Ballet. “I thought that if I made one mistake it would be over." Hagerman did make a mistake: She slipped and fell during grand allégro. “I got back up and I smiled," she says. To her relief, the teacher smiled back.
Summer intensive auditions give you only a few moments to make a good impression—often while crammed into a crowded room, after traveling distances in the car and with little time or space to warm up. It's hard not to obsess over a small mistake or feel discouraged if you're put on the intensive's waitlist afterwards. But according to school directors, many of your fears are overreactions. Here are a few of the most common audition misconceptions, along with what's really going on inside the teachers' heads.
During his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma, Austin Crumley switched the focus of his Bachelor of Fine Arts from ballet performance to ballet pedagogy. “I figured I already knew how to perform," he says. “I wanted to take advantage of OU's incredible faculty to learn something new." The degree change didn't close any doors for Crumley, who joined Sacramento Ballet this fall. However, he plans to focus on teaching after he retires. “The pedagogy degree turned a passion into a potential long-term career," he says.
Some degree-seeking dancers opt to concentrate on dance studies outside the traditional performance track—from dance science or administration to dance media, pedagogy, or even cultural studies. And for many, these degrees can support long careers both onstage and beyond.
It's a familiar sight on Instagram: A dancer lounges casually in an oversplit, drinking her morning coffee. One foot is propped up on blocks (or even a chair) as her legs split well beyond 180 degrees.
In recent years, extreme flexibility has become the new normal, with social media flooded with images of dancers contorting themselves into pretzel positions. The question of whether one must be this flexible to achieve a professional dance career is a matter of taste, but it's clear that at competitions, circus-like penchés and développés are being rewarded with medals, scholarships and contracts. But can extreme stretching cause injuries down the line? In truth, it can be either safe or risky.
Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home” training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream,” says Layne Baumann, Harper’s mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future.”
The idea of moving to Russia to study is huge, but even in less-extreme situations the factors to consider are the same. Often, summer intensives lead to offers to stay for a school’s year-round program. It’s an exciting honor to be asked, but leaving home to train is a big deal, no matter how near or far. With so much at stake, it’s a time for honest conversations between students, their families and their teachers to assess whether they’re ready to leave home.
Are You Mature Enough?
Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, co-directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, first ask potential students to define their goal. “Assess the situation objectively,” says Bo Spassoff. “Do you really want to be a professional ballet dancer? If yes, the only way that’s going to happen is with a very good sense, from the get-go, of what it’s going to take and how much work it’s going to be.”
While serious students know what hard work is, training full-time without the comforts of home or parental support adds a lot more pressure. Living 24/7 with peers might sound like a blast at first, but what about balancing dance, academics and household responsibilities? Houston Ballet corps member Tyler Donatelli says her mother needed evidence that she had the maturity and organizational skills to handle it. “She made it very clear that I was staying home until I was 16 and could prove I could live in a somewhat adult environment,” Donatelli remembers. “I didn’t really agree with her, but now I realize she was right. At 16, I could make better decisions about things I would have questioned if I’d been younger.”
An important gauge of a student’s readiness is emotional maturity— which may differ from their sense of responsibility or independence. Will residential life make it hard to stay focused? “It’s impossible to hide poor social skills or bad behavior in a residential setting,” says Donna Mattiello, academic director of The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Torrington, Connecticut. “So if a student struggles at home with poor judgment, following rules that they don’t agree with or self-discipline (like keeping their room clean and doing homework), those issues will be magnified at school.”
Artistic director Victoria Mazzarelli agrees, saying even students who’ve attended Nutmeg’s summer program should visit during the school year. “It’s just completely different. Spending a couple of days to pick up on the vibe and see how it feels will reveal a lot. It tells you pretty quickly whether it’s the right experience for you, because emotional readiness is the most important thing. Without that, everything will fall apart.”
Handling the Workload and Competition
For those offered year-round study, both Nutmeg and The Rock School conduct in-person talks with the whole family, if possible. The Spassoffs want to make sure everyone is involved and committed. “We listen to their concerns and never try to manipulate their decision,” says Stephanie Spassoff. “Sometimes a student is very enthusiastic about coming, but just doesn’t want to leave home yet—and that’s fine.”
The increased number of dancing hours will be physically strenuous, but Bo Spassoff also notes dancers must transition mentally when going from a regional school to a larger one. “Students have to realize that here, they may not be the best in their class. They need to accept the challenge to work hard. Some can’t come to grips with that and are unhappy.”
Weighing Pros and Cons
Even if you feel you can handle the workload, responsibility and emotional strain of living away from home, it’s important to consider what you’d truly gain—or stand to lose. Donatelli knew that along with the great training she was already getting at her home school, Southland Ballet Academy, there were other valuable benefits that gave her extra confidence when she joined Houston Ballet II. “Because it’s a smaller school, I got to do bigger roles in our productions,” she says. “In a professional school, dancing the lead in a full-length ballet isn’t something you’d find yourself doing.”
Focusing on what’s truly best for you—and your family—will make the choices of whether and when to leave home much clearer. The Ortlieb family had heart-to-heart talks about logistics and finances, extensively researched what life in Russia would be like and decided the time was right. Donatelli’s plan worked because she trusted that turning down an offer to stay at Houston Ballet Academy wouldn’t mean shutting that door forever. Communicating with the school’s director and expressing her interest was key. “We kept in touch, and I got the HBII contract two years later. They knew I’d come when I was ready.”
A Family Conversation
Because it’s hard to predict how you’ll feel once you move away from home, it’s critical to dig deep before you make a decision. What should you and your family talk about? Here are some starters:
What makes you excited about going to this particular school?
How do you feel when you imagine leaving your family, pets, teachers and friends?
How structured is the school’s residential program? Do thoughts of adhering to rules, following a set schedule and being monitored by someone other than your parents make you squirm?
How hard will it be to miss out on birthday celebrations, family events and holidays?
What would you do if you and your roommate disagreed about bedtimes, cleanliness, socializing?
How do you handle stress? Boredom?
What will you gain by moving away from home to train? Is there anything you stand to lose?
It’s expensive to live away from home. Can this opportunity wait a year while you save up and make a financial plan? —GL
Looking to Go Contemporary?
Today’s ballet companies span every inch of the classical-contemporary spectrum. Training programs that cater to this range, however, have yet to catch up. Edmund Stripe, the School of Alberta Ballet’s artistic director, took notice of this disparity. Last year, the school launched its Dedicated Contemporary Dance Stream, a separate track within the Professional Division. “The program provides training for those who have the desire to dance, yet don’t necessarily aspire to classical ballet,” says Stripe, though he notes that students still receive a strong ballet foundation.
This program, previously an option for students in 11th and 12th grade, will be open to 10th-graders this fall. “Starting at a younger age allows a dancer to become realized to a greater degree,” says Graham McKelvie, the school’s head of contemporary dance. The curriculum includes daily contemporary technique classes, partnering, contemporary repertoire, choreographic composition and body conditioning. Admission is audition-based, and financial assistance and talent-based scholarships are available. —Hannah Foster
“I’ve always been taught to focus on the quality of my turns rather than how many times I can get around. When finishing or coming out of a pirouette, often there is a tendency to hop down off of pointe. It is important to find that sweet spot on pointe where you are right over your leg and can roll down smoothly.” —Julia Cinquemani, Los Angeles Ballet
My audition photo shoot was less than ideal: The studio was freezing, my photographer friend was a ballet novice and I could hear the clock ticking on our $20-per-hour studio rental. This added to my mounting anxiety that my pictures could help land me a job—or land firmly in a “no” pile. Needless to say, they depicted my stress rather than my best. And when it comes to audition photos, your best is important. Not only will a good audition picture help you stand out, it will also help an interested director recognize you in a stack of resumés.
“Directors need to see your turnout, feet and a nice arabesque,” says former New York City Ballet dancer Kyle Froman, now a professional photographer whose company, StudentAuditionPhotos.com, launched last year. But you also have to let your artistry shine through those photos. Here are Froman’s tips for impressive, eye-catching prints.
Hire a Pro (or the Next Best Thing)
The best way to get a great dance shot is to hire an experienced dance photographer. Shooting ballet, Froman says, is very black and white: “There’s a right moment, but 99 percent of the time it’s the wrong moment.” Jumps, particularly, need perfect timing. Someone experienced in both ballet and photography will know exactly when to snap the shot.
If you can’t afford a professional or can’t find one experienced in dance, enlist a friend. In fact, it’s better to hire an amateur who knows ballet over a professional who doesn’t. It saves money, says Froman, and “chances are, they’re going to get something that’s closer to what an employer wants to see.” As for composition and presentation, use the highest-resolution camera you have; shoot with a clean, uncluttered background; pay attention to lighting and exposure (your body should be well lit, but not washed-out) and print on high-quality paper.
Prep Well and Show Your Assets
Don’t start with piqués and jumps when your back, calves and everything in between are cold. Take time to warm up properly and grow accustomed to the camera before hitting required poses. These, Froman urges, should highlight your assets: “Minimize your weaknesses unless there’s no other way around it.” Don’t forgo an arabesque shot if a director asks for one specifically, but if your side extension is to your ear, you might be better off with a glorious à la seconde.
“Dancers know what angles are best on them,” Froman says, but he references some camera tricks to help flatter further. For example, a direct profile isn’t the best angle if you’re worried about your turnout. And arabesques and jumps should be shot from below to slightly boost extension and height. A jump six inches in the air will look more impressive than a three-foot jump shot from the wrong angle.
You want to stand out, but never at the cost of professionalism. “A gaudy photo turns people off,” Froman says. “Don’t wear hot pink just to capture somebody’s attention. Let your dancing speak for itself.” In personal styling, err on the side of dressing conservatively. For women, tights and pointe shoes should be ballet pink and leotards should be basic (a tutu is okay, as long as it doesn’t obscure your line). Men should wear a solid-color top with black tights and either black shoes or white socks and white shoes.
For headshots, focus on presenting a clean, personable picture. If you’ve chosen to wear your hair down, take those photos first to avoid crimping from hairspray and pins, and use moderate street makeup. (Yes, Froman says, fake eyelashes are too much.)
Towards the end of a photo shoot Froman asks dancers, “When was your best moment onstage?” He’ll have them do an eight-count sequence from their favorite variation and imagine that they’re performing in front of 2,000 people. This helps find the spark: the personality and love of dancing that will bring your technique, facility and potential to life.
The Directors' Take
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen looks out for dancers who he may have previously crossed paths with. But he won’t be able to make this connection if your headshot is unrecognizable. “The worst thing is if it’s a glamour shot that looks nothing like you,” Nissinen says. For dance photos, he says, “I’d like to see a shot that they enjoy and I can see their spirit and even some dance in.” This is easier, he thinks, in a performance photo: “Studio shots are often more sterile. But I also understand that a student might not have done Odette/Odile.” Ultimately, he says, “I’m looking for quality dancers. The more quality the picture can represent, if that’s the case in reality, then great.”
For BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang, photos don’t have to be “hyper-professional,” but they should be clear and clean—and honest. “If a photo doesn’t capture the essence of your ability and your technique, then I think that’s misleading.” On the other hand, he doesn’t oppose the subtle camera tricks like the kind photographer Kyle Froman suggests. “I think that a smart dancer is more important than anything else. Just like models, they need to know what their best angles are.” For Liang, knowing how to play to your strengths is a strength. If you can work a camera lens, chances are you can do it for an audience.
When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented,” says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best.”
There’s nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it’s easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls,” says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work.”
Upping the Ante
Houston Ballet launched its inaugural exchange with the SFB School Trainee Program in 2014 for a whirlwind week of classes, rehearsals and outings, all of which culminated in two final performances. In addition to rehearsing their own repertoire, the dancers worked together on a joint piece, rehearsing separately with a video ahead of time so that they were both on equal footing once they came together. This November, HBII traveled to San Francisco for an equally jam-packed collaboration.
Richter experienced several “aha” moments during the 2014 exchange. “I watched how the SFB trainees incorporated corrections from our teachers that we have heard over and over,” she says. And taking class from SFB faculty opened her eyes to other ways of thinking about her technique.
“New teachers always breathe new life into corrections,” says Power, who noticed a definite bump in growth among the students. “Peer-to-peer competition is good because comparison always gives us a new benchmark to assess ourselves,” she says. “Maybe you need a little push, and seeing other students as good as you are puts you on that higher level.”
American Ballet Theatre Studio Company director Kate Lydon agrees. For more than a decade, the ABT Studio Company has joined forces with The Royal Ballet School for master classes and joint performances as a way to expand the dancers’ horizons. The schools take turns hosting each year, and the dancers have plenty of opportunities to sightsee. “Whenever we travel, it’s marvelous for the dancers to be exposed to such a high caliber of training,” says Lydon.
Some students thrive on the surprising similarities an exchange can offer. “It’s really inspiring to take class and talk with these students who are just as passionate as you are about what you do,” says former ABT Studio Company member Tyler Maloney, now an ABT apprentice. “Even though we all have this similar ultimate goal, it’s interesting to see how we all come from completely different upbringings.”
Building Cultural Awareness
At the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Sarasota, Florida, founders Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, who both defected from Cuba in 1993, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School because they wanted to expose their students to the school director—and their former teacher—Dr. Ramona de Saa. In April 2014, Serrano and Hernandez brought a group of students to Cuba to participate in an international competition and a workshop at the school in Havana. Then in July, de Saa and a half-dozen dancers from the National Ballet School came to Sarasota. They repeated the exchange in 2015, and hope to make it an annual event.
“For the Cubans, it’s an opportunity to highlight their impressive legacy of dance training, which is, justly, a matter of great national pride,” says SCBS executive director Carol Hirschburg. “For SCBS, it’s a celebration of the Cuban method of dance training and an opportunity to promote it to students in the U.S.”
Because both schools are Cuban in lineage, there are few training differences, yet the classroom culture is slightly different. “Cuban students must adhere strictly to every rule or they are suspended immediately,” says Hirschburg. “They work so hard,” says SCBS student Lucy Hamilton. ”They inspired us to work even harder.”
For the American students, traveling to Havana opened their eyes to the Cuban dancers’ economic circumstances. Although the Cuban government provides the training, basic supplies (such as pointe shoes) are very expensive. “Even though they have so little, they have such a positive attitude,” says Hamilton. When the National Ballet School students came to Florida, SCBS arranged for local dancewear shops to donate much-needed supplies for them.
A week may not seem like enough time to make much of an impact on one’s training, but that isn’t really the whole point. Young dancers return inspired to be part of ballet’s global legacy. “It was arguably the best experience of my life,” says Hamilton. “We formed what I think will be lifelong friendships.”
“Collaborating brings the world closer together and gives students an experience that they will take into their future,” says Power. “Having teachers from around the world brings the past to the forefront and gives students a sense of the tradition of ballet training.”
Summer Scholarship Opportunity: Project Resilience
Project Resilience, a dance scholarship organization dedicated to helping students from underserved areas pursue professional ballet careers, is offering a $1,500 scholarship to “The Resilient Ballet Dancer of the Year,” to be used towards a summer intensive at American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem or Houston Ballet. Project coordinator Everett Dyson says that the awardee will be a dancer from an underserved urban community who has an incredible story to tell, someone who has “stayed at it, kept going, because that’s their passion.” Dyson was inspired by the Project’s two high-profile backers, Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson, to help students achieve their dancing dreams.
Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 1, 2016. For detailed application instructions and more information, go to theresilientdancer.wordpress.com. —Hannah Foster
“A teacher once told me to imagine pulling up my jeans on a humid day to help me lengthen the front of my hips when standing. That feeling helped place me in the right posture, as well as give my dancing a more lengthened look.”
—Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier