Former Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis with Company dancers in Jerome Robbins' The Concert. Photo Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

An American in Paris: One Dancer's Growth at the Paris Opéra Ballet

Reuniting with Chelsea Adomaitis in Paris was like a little taste of home. Old friends and former corps members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, we had both moved to Europe last summer. Over brunch she' d share the story that brought her abroad.

As a little girl, Chelsea Adomaitis dreamed of dancing for the Paris Opéra Ballet, but as most do, she dismissed it as just that: a dream. Beginning her training in Boston with her mom, a former dancer, she later enrolled at the Harid Conservatory. It wasn't until she attended Pacific Northwest Ballet School's summer program, at age 16, that she discovered Balanchine, and it was love at first step. After two years in the school she was hired as an apprentice.

Her first few years in the company were full of growing pains. Her technique and confidence flourished as she gained opportunities to perform leading roles. Yet juggling these with a very heavy corps load began to wear on her. Confusion, frustration and injuries mounted as one season of this juggling act turned into four. Yet she persevered, hoping her work would soon be recognized and rewarded.


The author and Adomaitis outside Versailles. Photo by Jessika Anspach McEliece, Courtesy McEliece.


"By the end of the 2014–15 season I felt invincible!" she said, having danced her most grueling yet accomplished season to date. But her upward momentum seemed to halt the following season.

"I'd learned to work hard, but not to advocate for myself," she says. "I realized that I wasn't on 'the list,' that my work hadn't spoken for itself. And that was tough to swallow."

Strangely, a freak ankle sprain during a performance in spring of 2016 became the catalyst to alter the course of her career. Pushing through the pain, against her better judgment, Adomaitis hoped to prove herself worthy of a promotion only to find it had gone to someone else. Injured and depressed, she retreated to her family home for healing and perspective. And it was there that childhood dreams of the Paris Opéra Ballet resurfaced.

Nearly 26, she surveyed her options. In her mind POB certainly wasn't among them. But something compelled her to investigate. The company website read: "July auditions—ages 16–26." This was her last chance.

Fast-forward a couple of months: an intimidating open audition in Paris, where she knew no one and didn't speak or understand a word of French. Her approach: zero expectations.

"I was chasing my dream while I still could, seeing it as an icebreaker for future auditions," she says. "Get the scariest one over first, right? But I returned to Seattle changed, feeling so free. I'd needed to burst my own bubble."

A week later she received an email from POB offering her a temporary contract: a seven-month trial with potential to extend. Risking everything, she resigned from PNB and packed for Paris.


Former Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis in Susan Stroman's TAKE FIVE…More or Less. Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

But there's nothing like going from "rising-through-the-ranks" to "bottom-of-the- ladder" to wake one up from the fairy tale. With tradition and hierarchy paramount at POB, Adomaitis found herself always in the back, paid to understudy, rarely to dance. Doubts rose as old feelings of unworthiness returned.

Yet she realized something: "It's not that I'm unworthy, I'm new. Trust takes time to build, especially in an institution of this caliber. It's not personal, it's business. Besides, it gives me time to adapt and assimilate."

And time it's taken. She's had to stylistically retrain, focusing on balance, control, fluidity and port de bras while ridding herself of certain Balanchine affectations. She's had to learn a new language, as all classes and corrections are given in French. And she's had to adjust to the raked stage and studios, and to an intense yet slower rehearsal pace. With more downtime, she's put her wisdom gained at PNB to good use, recognizing that self-care and decompression are key, especially when her constantly translating brain gets as much of a workout as her body.

As a result, she's experiencing all-new growing pains. Growth, personally, in learning to advocate for herself—being bold, bluntly expressing her needs because, in her words, "no one else will, and I can't sugarcoat in French."

Growth, professionally, in mental nimbleness, emotional fortitude and focus. Knowing all the swans in Swan Lake versus just one, for example. Being flexible and prepared to dance whichever part she is thrown into (she's performed four separate swan spots). Not allowing mistakes or emotions to overwhelm and derail her, or others' opinions sway her—easily accomplished since she literally can't understand them.

She's also learned to let go of ego, a lesson that took her by surprise. "I never saw myself as defensive," she admits. "But letting it all go has freed me to change. To accept corrections. To dance whatever part they give me with joy and gratitude."


Former Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis. Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

With time, trust has been gained. Twice in November during POB's all-Balanchine program, artistic staff told her at intermission to get ready—"her girl was not okay"—only to change their minds in the wings. But the third time, they let her step in for Brahms- Schoenberg Quartet's second movement, and it was a turning point. By March, she'd progressed from "understudy-only" to having her very own part in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream—dancing every show, with her name in the program.

Though her temporary contract was extended to a full season, ending in June 2017, her future is still unknown. It rests on her performance at the concours, POB's annual audition for both permanent and temporary contracts. But she doesn't dwell on that, choosing instead to focus on each day—challenges, triumphs and all.

Cafés and croissants devoured, I smiled and asked, "So, was it worth it?"

"To have gone in older, unknown and differently trained, but as 100 percent Chelsea, and have that affirmed, has been the greatest gift," she told me. "Every day I get to live this dream, and that has been worth everything!"


Editor's note: On July 6th, 2017, Adomaitis came in third place at the Paris Opéra Ballet's annual concours, and earned a temporary contract for the 2017/18 season, but was not offered a permanent position. While this season will be her last at POB, she plans to audition for other companies next year.

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Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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