Aran Bell and Catherine Hurlin

Jayme Thornton

American Ballet Theatre’s Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell Are on the Fast Track Towards Stardom

This is Pointe's Winter 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

"They're breaking all my theories about not pushing dancers too soon," Kevin McKenzie, the usually cautious artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, said recently in his office near Union Square. He was referring to recently promoted soloists Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, 24 and 21, respectively. And he's not kidding. Hurlin and Bell are on the fast track, with role after role coming their way.

Bell, whom many remember as the funny and self-possessed 11-year-old in the ballet documentary First Position, had his debut in Romeo and Juliet in 2018 while still a corps member, followed by Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty the next year. Catherine Hurlin has been a shooting star since her student days at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, when she was chosen to dance the role of Clara in Alexei Ratmansky's new Nutcracker. Once in the company, she acquired the nickname "Hurricane," a moniker that becomes self-explanatory when you see her tear across the stage. Both have rock-solid technique and an enviable facility. But their most impressive quality at the moment is how nothing seems to faze them. "They've displayed the ability to develop artistically, with the sensibility of someone with more experience," reflects McKenzie.

Bell and Hurlin pose against a light grey background dressed in red and gold Don Quixote costumes.

Aran Bell and Catherine Hurlin

Jayme Thornton

There's something very exciting about watching two dancers blossom before your eyes, especially at once. Recently, they've begun to be cast together, first in Jessica Lang's Garden Blue in fall 2018. Then came Ratmansky's The Seasons, where Hurlin danced the role of Hail to Bell's Winter, followed by Twyla Tharp's A Gathering of Ghosts and Lang's Let Me Sing Forevermore, both of which were performed in the fall season. Lang had created Let Me Sing for the Erik Bruhn competition, where the pair competed together in March. (Hurlin was awarded the women's prize.) It was around then that they also started dating. "Combined," says Lang of their dynamic in the studio and onstage, "they balance each other. He grounds her, she lightens him. And there's a real connection."Lang's jazzy pas de deux, set to Tony Bennett's rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon," seemed to capture them perfectly at this point in their careers: two amazingly talented, young American dancers, ready to take on the world. In March, they will star together in Ratmansky's newest evening-length, Of Love and Rage.

Aran Bell

Bell is an imposing young man: tall, broad-shouldered, quiet, comfortable in his skin. In rehearsal and in conversation, he comes across as serious, though Hurlin, a firecracker, can easily get him to crack a smile. On the index finger of his right hand, he wears a silver skull ring. "It's called a 'revenant,' which is a person who comes back from the dead," he tells me, "and I've been called an old soul my whole life." In rehearsals he doesn't talk much, but you can see him watching the proceedings, breaking down the choreography, figuring out what works and what doesn't. Making his role debut as Romeo, at age 19, "was pretty stressful," he admits, but he didn't allow that stress to tie him in knots. Instead, he prepared. "I go home and study videos of the roles I have to do. I don't think about anything else really," he says. ABT's Devon Teuscher, a principal who was his partner in Romeo and Juliet, remembers how steady he was from the first day of rehearsals. "He knew the role. It was shocking how easy and natural the process was."

Bell and Hurlin in right unitards against a structural backdrop onstage.

Bell and Hurlin in Jessica Lang's Garden Blue

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

This kind of focus is innate but was deepened by his unusual upbringing. His dad, Ryan, was a Navy doctor (and still practices as a civilian). The family moved around, from Washington, DC, to Washington State, and back to DC before decamping for Naples, Italy, for four and a half years, followed by upstate New York and Greenwich, Connecticut. He was homeschooled, and privately trained by a series of ballet teachers, each an exponent of a different style.

Like a lot of men, he got into ballet by tagging along to his sister's lessons. As a boy of 4 in Washington, he started training with Michiko Schulbach, who followed the Vaganova syllabus. At the school, he says, "there was no baby ballet. I stood at the barre with the older kids, and when she said 'tendu' you tendued." But ballet appealed to his focused, disciplined nature. Then, for three years, he went to the Balanchine-influenced Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In Italy, he and his mother, Michelle, commuted two hours each way to Rome, six days a week, to work with the teacher Denys Ganio. All of his teachers have been demanding. "I like blunt people," he says.

Aran Bell poses against a light grey background. He's wearing white tights and shoes and a gold and Don Quixote jacket.

Aran Bell

Jayme Thornton

Ganio, in particular, was a huge influence. Trained at the Paris Opéra and a longtime star of the Roland Petit company, he was a hard-driving but loving teacher with an enormous personality. "I was doing triple tours when I was 11," says Bell. "They were terrible, but over time you grow that coordination." Ganio also taught his young pupil variations outside the usual classical canon, including highly theatrical solos by Petit. "He brought out the craziness in me," says Bell, something he felt he needed. After that there were stints with the Cuban dancer Magaly Suarez in Florida and Fabrice Herrault in New York. International competitions, including Youth America Grand Prix, helped him gain more performance experience.

At just shy of 16, he was taken into ABT Studio Company, at the time directed by Kate Lydon. It was only then that Bell, who was still on the smaller side and slight, began to grow to his current height of 6' 3". And, more importantly, where he really learned to partner. Going through a huge growth spurt made things more difficult, but also focused his efforts. "I had a moment of realization when they asked me to do a very simple lift with the lightest girl in the room and it just didn't happen," he explains. "I had that panic—'I need to do something about this, fast.' " He started to work out assiduously at the gym, bulked up and figured it out. As a result, at 21 he is already considered one of the most dependable partners in the company.

It has all happened very fast. "He was this darling child who turned into this man in a matter of moments," Lang says almost wistfully. "It's quite staggering."

Catherine Hurlin

High expectations have been placed on Catherine Hurlin since she was a kid. Her mother, the former Paul Taylor dancer Denise Roberts Hurlin, once told The New York Times that she intuited that her daughter would become a dancer right from the start, when she "stretched out on the changing table and pointed her feet." Dancing does seem to come naturally to her. She's limber, quick and tireless, seemingly able to do anything. "What's special about Catherine is that she's fearless," the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky recently said of her. "She has this instinctive way of doing things excitingly." One minute she's sitting on the floor watching another dancer rehearse a section of choreography, the next she gets up and does it herself, without breaking a sweat.

Catherine Hurlin flies through the air in a grand jet\u00e9 wearing a brown and yellow peasant costume. A group of dancers dressed as peasants sit on the ground behind her.

Hurlin dancing the peasant pas de deux in Giselle

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Like Bell, she started dance early, at 5. She spent four years at Westchester Dance Academy, a competition studio, where she learned a mix of jazz, tap and lyrical dance, and a little ballet. (That jazz training has come in handy in Jessica Lang's Let Me Sing Forevermore and Twyla Tharp's ballets, particularly Deuce Coupe.) At 11, Hurlin competed in YAGP (Bell, then 9, was there too) and received a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Franco De Vita, then the school's director, has vivid memories of this high-energy little girl with bright red hair whose big personality seemed to light up the room. "She was always a ham," he says, "but she knew how to rein it in. She made the right choices, always. And she had confidence."

That confidence comes with something you can't really teach: an instinct for acting, and particularly for comedy. Ratmansky, who had already spotted her at the school when he was creating his Nutcracker, later chose her to play Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse in his Whipped Cream, a character who dances a vaudeville-like trio while wearing a bottle-shaped foam costume. With deadpan, dopey charm, she turned the character into one of the highlights of the ballet. But she can also be dramatic, as she proved earlier this year in the one-act drama On the Dnieper, where she dances the role of a young woman forced to marry a man she doesn't love. She approaches humor and drama with the same directness. "When I'm out there onstage, I'm just in it," she says. "I'm not really thinking. I've had that stage amnesia where you go offstage and you say, 'What just happened? Did I do the right choreography?' "

Catherine Hurlin poses with a red fan against a light grey background. She's wearing a red and gold Don Quixote tutu and pointe shoes.

Catherine Hurlin

Jayme Thornton

So far, her spontaneity, and the trust she has in her abilities, seems to shield her from the timidity and hand-wringing one often sees in young dancers—particularly young women—who often struggle with the implicit message that they are just one of many. She's not consumed by the thought that she might not get this or that role. "There's more to life than ballet!" she exclaims. (So, then, what do you do to relax?, I asked her "We sit on the couch and watch TV!" she answered with a laugh.) And yet, despite her breezy affect, she puts in the work, and the proof is in the results: She gets visibly stronger, and more impressive, with each passing season. At the same time, she has not lost the sense that dancing should also be fun. "I think my personality is very active and playful and free," she says, "and I think dance has allowed me to be that person." This is what Bell admires most about her: the freedom she experiences when she dances.

One day, she says, she'd like to perform dramatic roles like Giselle and Manon and Juliet. She's also drawn to Odette/Odile, though, she admits, "the dramatic parts attract me more than the technical side that you need in order to be a swan." Is she ready to dig into her gut? "I don't know if I'm ready or not, but I still wanna do it!"

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1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

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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."

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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

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"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."

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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.

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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."

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