Ballet Training

Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.

But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me ‘bull in a china shop’ because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn’t do it gracefully,” she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five.”

Button’s story is one example of how a school’s view on competition can factor into its training philosophy. Students who compete are often virtuosic performers with a commanding stage presence; dancers who don’t compete often excel in technical nuance and refinement of style, but may not have as much stage experience. When choosing a school, consider how its policy on competition fits your personality and whether it will get you to your career goals.

Training for Competition

There is a stereotype about schools that compete: Students rehearse one or two variations nonstop all year long, to the neglect of well-rounded training. The reality, however, is that many schools view competition as an extension of a dancer’s training, rather than the ultimate goal. “It’s certainly not our prime focus,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. “We submit students to competitions because the preparation is instrumental in getting them stronger and helps their overall technical development. The prize is in the process.”

Still, The Rock School for Dance Education co-director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says that dancers who are selected to compete may follow a different rehearsal schedule. “Sometimes while one group is competing, another will be doing a school show,” says Spassoff.

Perhaps the biggest difference between students who compete and those who do not is that competing dancers are regularly exposed to the pressures of professional life. Competition forces dancers to take responsibility for the preparation and outcome of their performances, and learn how to deal with nerves. Plus, competing helps build stage presence. And it is a great platform for dancers to be seen by company directors—a potential kick-start to a career.

 

From comp kid to soloist: Boston Ballet's Dusty Button (photo by Liza Voll)

A No-Competition Policy

Schools that forbid participation in competitions believe that students don’t need to look beyond their doors for training, performance and networking opportunities. The School of American Ballet, for instance, emphasizes setting full-length ballets and bringing in outside choreographers. This approach lets a dancer focus solely on technique, with an emphasis on refinement and clarity. “Because we don’t compete,” says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, “it gives us time to train our students in our Balanchine style, using our Balanchine syllabus.”

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Nicholas Ade acknowledges that many dancers nab jobs through competitions. The school does not have an official policy, but he believes students shouldn’t be seen and evaluated for professional slots until they’re truly ready. “We tell students: You will make a name for yourself, but it will be when you are fully cooked, when all the ingredients are there,” he says. “Then, you’re seen not only for your potential, but in a more finished and polished way, as a young professional.”

The key is to choose a school that fits your personality, where you are in your training and your career dreams. What do your favorite companies value? Research their dancers’ training paths. The school you choose now will shape the kind of dancer you will become.

 

SAB of the West (With a Twist)?

There’s a new training option for high school dancers in Los Angeles: Come September, the Colburn Dance Academy, a partnership between The Colburn School and Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, will host its first class of 12 students. The program, directed by recently retired New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer, will have roots in Balanchine, with a diverse set of specialty classes like ballroom, hip hop and piano. “We want to take these dancers and polish them. Prepare them for professional life,” says Ringer. “We’re excited to expose them to that through LADP.” Students will attend dance classes during the day and take academics at nearby schools or online. Ringer hopes the program will eventually expand and secure its own dorm. “We’d like to have a similar model to SAB,” she says. Faculty had not been finalized as of press time, but Millepied is scheduled to teach, with several guest artists on rotation. The first for 2014–15 is Wendy Whelan. —Kristin Schwab

 

Technique Tip

“Using your port de bras from your back changes how your arms look, lengthening your muscles. It will help your classical technique, giving you a cleaner pirouette and higher jump. Before class, I do yoga cat and cows to warm up my lats. Sometimes during barre, I flex my palms so I can feel the full length underneath my arms. You have to set it up at the barre so when you get to center, you don’t have to think about it.” —Rachel Van Buskirk, Atlanta Ballet

Ballet Training

Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.

But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me ‘bull in a china shop’ because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn’t do it gracefully,” she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five.”

Button’s story is one example of how a school’s view on competition can factor into its training philosophy. Students who compete are often virtuosic performers with a commanding stage presence; dancers who don’t compete often excel in technical nuance and refinement of style, but may not have as much stage experience. When choosing a school, consider how its policy on competition fits your personality and whether it will get you to your career goals.

Training for Competition
There is a stereotype about schools that compete: Students rehearse one or two variations nonstop all year long, to the neglect of well-rounded training. The reality, however, is that many schools view competition as an extension of a dancer’s training, rather than the ultimate goal. “It’s certainly not our prime focus,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. “We submit students to competitions because the preparation is instrumental in getting them stronger and helps their overall technical development. The prize is in the process.”

Still, The Rock School for Dance Education co-director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says that dancers who are selected to compete may follow a different rehearsal schedule. “Sometimes while one group is competing, another will be doing a school show,” says Spassoff.
Perhaps the biggest difference between students who compete and those who do not is that competing dancers are regularly exposed to the pressures of professional life. Competition forces dancers to take responsibility for the preparation and outcome of their performances, and learn how to deal with nerves. Plus, competing helps build stage presence. And it is a great platform for dancers to be seen by company directors—a potential kick-start to a career.


A No-Competition Policy

Schools that forbid participation in competitions believe that students don’t need to look beyond their doors for training, performance and networking opportunities. The School of American Ballet, for instance, emphasizes setting full-length ballets and bringing in outside choreographers. This approach lets a dancer focus solely on technique, with an emphasis on refinement and clarity. “Because we don’t compete,” says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, “it gives us time to train our students in our Balanchine style, using our Balanchine syllabus.”

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Nicholas Ade acknowledges that many dancers nab jobs through competitions. The school does not have an official policy, but he believes students shouldn’t be seen and evaluated for professional slots until they’re truly ready. “We tell students: You will make a name for yourself, but it will be when you are fully cooked, when all the ingredients are there,” he says. “Then, you’re seen not only for your potential, but in a more finished and polished way, as a young professional.”

The key is to choose a school that fits your personality, where you are in your training and your career dreams. What do your favorite companies value? Research their dancers’ training paths. The school you choose now will shape the kind of dancer you will become.

 

SAB of the West (With a Twist)?
There’s a new training option for high school dancers in Los Angeles: Come September, the Colburn Dance Academy, a partnership between The Colburn School and Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, will host its first class of 12 students. The program, directed by recently retired New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer, will have roots in Balanchine, with a diverse set of specialty classes like ballroom, hip hop and piano. “We want to take these dancers and polish them. Prepare them for professional life,” says Ringer. “We’re excited to expose them to that through LADP.” Students will attend dance classes during the day and take academics at nearby schools or online. Ringer hopes the program will eventually expand and secure its own dorm. “We’d like to have a similar model to SAB,” she says. Faculty had not been finalized as of press time, but Millepied is scheduled to teach, with several guest artists on rotation. The first for 2014–15 is Wendy Whelan. —Kristin Schwab

 

Technique Tip
“Using your port de bras from your back changes how your arms look, lengthening your muscles. It will help your classical technique, giving you a cleaner pirouette and higher jump. Before class, I do yoga cat and cows to warm up my lats. Sometimes during barre, I flex my palms so I can feel the full length underneath my arms. You have to set it up at the barre so when you get to center, you don’t have to think about it.” —Rachel Van Buskirk, Atlanta Ballet

Ballet Stars

Photography by Liza Voll

 

Attend any Boston Ballet performance and you’re almost guaranteed to see one of the Cirios onstage. Although the sibling principals, Lia, 27, and Jeffrey, 22, are rarely paired, they’re two of the company’s most in-demand dancers. Lia, striking and elegant, moves with power and finesse, while Jeffrey, who rose from first-year corps member to principal in just three years, imbues his roles with youthful virtuosity. Both dancers fit easily into Boston Ballet’s diverse repertoire, earning acclaim in works that range from Elo to Balanchine to Petipa. Offstage, they’re the hip kids of Boston’s dance scene, with their home-crafted fashions, quirky tattoos and artsy vibe. Lia recently enrolled in an undergraduate program at Northeastern University; Jeffrey has begun to choreograph in his spare time. They live a few blocks from each other, and often grab lunch or dinner together during the season. Last fall, Pointe followed the Cirios through a day of classes and rehearsals as the company transitioned from La Bayadère to The Nutcracker for its 43-show run.

Ballet Careers

From the moment she gets her first company contract, every corps de ballet dancer dreams of moving up through the ranks. A lucky few are promoted quickly. But more often, corps members must work for many seasons before the title of “soloist” finally comes (if it ever does). While that wait can feel discouraging, it can also be a lesson in patience and tenacity—and in how to find  your own artistic opportunities. We asked three dancers who spent several years in the corps de ballet to share the breakthrough moments that finally resulted in their promotions, and the lessons that kept them going on their prolonged paths to the spotlight.

Kylee Kitchens
Joined Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2000; promoted to soloist in 2012
I was in the corps for 11 years. Some people might have given up on a promotion around year 10. I felt discouraged at times, but I knew I wanted to keep dancing. I had discussions with director Peter Boal about what I needed to work on. He recommended improving my overall strength, so I started exercising outside of class and going to yoga.

There was a time when I didn’t think I would ever be promoted, and I had to learn to be okay with that. I was getting solos and variations, so I could find moments onstage that were fulfilling for me. You have to come to a place of peace within yourself—if a promotion isn’t going to happen, dancing professionally is a huge opportunity in itself.

In 2008, we had a full-company audition for Ulysses Dove’s Vespers. The stager, Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, saw something in me and chose me as one of the 11 cast members. The movement in the ballet is powerful, almost rough. Until then, I’d been seen as a classical, lyrical dancer. Realizing I could do this different style of movement gave me so much more confidence. And I think after Peter saw me do Vespers, he saw a different, more diverse dancer in me, too.


Alicia Fabry
Joined Carolina Ballet in 2006; promoted to soloist in 2010
My career has always been a slow process. I’m a very shy person, and I’ve struggled with confidence issues. You can’t change your personality in a year. Opening myself up took some time.

If I did have a breakthrough moment, it was in 2010, when I was cast as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. It was my first big solo part, and it was a good transition for me. I was comfortable in the role—it was technical, but not too technical. Things picked up from there: A couple months later, I was cast as Effie in La Sylphide, and at the beginning of the next season, I was promoted to soloist.

I’m a positive person, but I think we all get discouraged at some point in our careers. I was a late starter, not studying ballet seriously until I went to English National Ballet School at 18. (At that point, I couldn’t even do a double pirouette! I had a lot to catch up on.) I’ve had a few injuries that delayed me as well. You feel like you’re disappointing yourself and your director. But, you know, it’s life, and at some point, you have to get past it and say, I’m going to move forward. I wish I’d understood that sooner in my career.


Jordana Daumec

Joined The National Ballet of Canada in 2004; promoted to second soloist in 2010
During my second year in the corps, I understudied the role of the Bee in our Nutcracker. It’s a big jumping role, which I love, and I’d always wanted to do it—it felt so “me.” A couple of days before we closed, they decided to put me on. After that, I started getting more demi-soloist work and some solos in full-length ballets.

Performing those parts gave me the drive to push myself to improve. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a corps member capable of doing soloist work—I was actually capable of being a soloist. That was a matter of proving two things: that I was dependable and consistent, and that I had the technique to handle regular soloist casting. I knew I had to polish my port de bras and make sure my feet were clean, in particular. Once I refined those things, my promotion came.

I did have days where I thought, Oh, all I really want is to be a soloist. But then I’d ask myself: What’s more important, having the title, or doing the work? I think a lot of young dancers focus too much on the title. Everybody wants to make it to soloist and principal—I mean, that’s why we started dancing. But you can’t control whether they’re going to give you a soloist contract or not. All you can control is yourself. You just keep trucking ahead.

Ballet Stars

Dancers have a love-hate relationship with Nutcracker. For many, it was the first ballet they saw; for even more, it was the first they ever performed. But, despite the nostalgia, December’s relentless marathon of shows takes a toll. If Nutcracker music is starting to make you a little loopy, you’re not alone! 

Abigail Mentzer
Soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet
First roles: Angel and Soldier in The Nutcracker movie with Macaulay Culkin
Favorite role: Lead Marzipan and Sugar Plum
Performances per season: About 30
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Darci Kistler
How do you stay sane during Nutcracker season? I sew. It takes my mind off the day. And my gym is across the street from our theater, so in between shows—some Saturdays we have three in a day—I’ll go to the hot tub.
How do you keep up your stamina? I swim laps about three times a week. It loosens up my joints. I always feel much more open and taller afterwards.
What goes through your mind when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Honestly? Anxiety.
Favorite holiday traditions? Icing my feet! And I love to escape to New York City, because that’s where I grew up.
Biggest Nutcracker nightmare? In my first year doing Sugar Plum, my shoe came off near the end of my variation! I had to do the whole greeting scene with it practically off my foot. I thought nothing could go wrong after that—but the next day, my partner was horribly sick, and in the pas when we did the no-handed fish, he didn’t feel me start to slide down. My belly was basically lying on the floor!

Lia Cirio
Principal at Boston Ballet

First role: Party kid
Favorite roles: Dew Drop and Snow Queen
Performances per season: 40–45
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Larissa Ponomarenko
How do you stay sane? Halfway through the run, I’ll usually be like, “Okay, let’s go Christmas shopping!” I love trying to get the best presents, something the person would never guess—I kind of go crazy, researching online. And I’ll shop for a New Year’s dress, or decorate my dressing room with lights.
Do you exchange gifts with castmates? For “merde” gifts, we all go to this Chinese store down the street and try to find the most random stuff—like Sharpies. One time, someone gave me a baby blanket, which I still use as a mat to stretch on!
What do you do on Christmas? My brother Jeffrey is also in the company, so our parents usually come up here. My mom makes dinner, and we’ll invite over other dancers whose families aren’t nearby. Last year, we had two days off, so we actually got to go home to Philadelphia for the first time in seven years.
Any blooper stories? Not personally, but we have a story that’s epic at Boston Ballet: We were doing an afternoon show for children, and James Whiteside and Kathleen Breen Combes were dancing Arabian for the first time. All of the sudden, a girl from the audience crawls up on stage and starts running around screaming! They just keep dancing, and it becomes a pas de trois. The girl runs backstage and Craig, our stage manager, tries to catch her, but she’s scared—he’s a big guy. Then Drosselmeyer runs after her, and she’s screaming and running back and forth onstage. She starts to go toward the pit, and suddenly one of our “Russian” guys runs out, like a hero, and scoops her up.

Roddy Doble
Corps de Ballet at American Ballet Theatre

First role: Soldier. I was 5 and I wasn’t even doing ballet yet; I was in my town’s local karate school.
Favorite roles: Cavalier, Arabian, Spanish, Russian—anytime I get the chance to really dance.
Performances per season: 20–30
How do you stay sane? Take it one show at a time. If you start the countdown too early, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
How do you keep up your stamina? I’ll confess to being a total gym rat. I do a lot of cross-training, and take classes in mixed martial arts and Krav Maga, which is Israeli self-defense. If I have a ridiculously demanding show day, adding the gym on top of it is too much, but otherwise, I want to make sure that I get my heart rate up.
Most unique Nutcracker you’ve done? When I performed as a guest in the Netherlands. Nutcracker isn’t a big tradition there, so they had a very unusual version. Instead of Mother Ginger, they had a giant rabbi—and these kids ran out in sequin costumes and started break-dancing!
What goes through your head when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Oh, it’s awful. Painful. Especially when you’re younger, you start rehearsing so early in the year that by the time December comes around, you’re thinking, If I hear this music one more time, I’ll convert to Judaism!

Lauren King
Corps de Ballet at New York City Ballet

First role: Soldier
Favorite role: Dewdrop
Performances per season: About 50
How do you keep up your stamina? I usually eat two dinners, one before the show and one after. Sometimes I’ll cook a big meal at the beginning of the week, like pasta with vegetables in it, and then carry it with me to eat before performances. I don’t like dancing on an empty stomach.
Any Nutcracker traditions? In the dressing room, during the halfway point of each show we used to always play the song “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi: “Whoa, we’re halfway there...”
Any blooper stories? One night during “Waltz of the Flowers,” a big piece of marley tape came up on the stage. I knew it’d be pretty distracting. At the very end, when we posed and bowed, the tape was right in front of me, so I did a huge swoop down and ripped it off.
What goes through your head when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? It’s almost like The Red Shoes. You can’t help but want to do the choreography to it. No one else even notices the music, but inside, you’re doing the dance.

Meaghan Grace Hinkis
First Artist at The Royal Ballet

First role: Clara
Favorite role: Clara in The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker
Performances per season: 25–30
All-time favorite Sugar Plums: Marianela Nuñez and Alina Cojocaru
Best gift you’ve received backstage? Last year at my first Royal Ballet show as Clara, I got a bouquet of flowers from the corps at ABT, where I used to dance. It was incredible to have that support from such great girls back in New York.
Any Nutcracker traditions? We decorate the dressing rooms. It’s a little competition, and whichever row has the best decorations wins.
Oddest Nutcracker memory? Over the years, I think I’ve eaten pounds of snow. There’s so much running around in the snow scenes in both ABT’s and The Royal Ballet’s productions that you swallow a ton.
What do you do on Christmas Day? This past year, my whole family came over to London. My brother, sister and I woke up early to open our stockings, like little kids. We went to dinner at a traditional English restaurant, and just spent the day together, which is really what it’s about for me.

Courtney Elizabeth
Soloist at San Francisco Ballet

First role: Mouse. Last year marked 20 years of doing Nutcracker, so my mom gave me a crystal figurine of a ballerina to celebrate.
Favorite role: As a child, Polichinelle. I’d wanted to be one for several years, and it was an amazing thing!
Performances per season: 30–35
How do you stay sane? Because we do two shows a day, every day, it can start to feel like the movie Groundhog Day. The best thing is to inject a little spontaneity, like going out to lunch with a friend. And I like to have a different motivation for each performance. Some days, I’ll focus on my port de bras, or in the party scene I’ll add a different adjective in front of my role, like “Today I’m the spunky maid.” Or the “flustered maid.” In the past, we’ve tried to count how many balancés were in the “Waltz of the Flowers”—I think it was upwards of 70.
Any blooper stories? So many! Since I play the maid in the party scene, our master of props has me do his dirty work. I’ll be carrying glasses around and he’ll say, “Something fell into the trap door. Can you go dig it out?” Or, “We forgot to turn the remote control couch on! Will you go flip the switch on the bottom?” There were several days that I think I saved the show!
Favorite Nutcracker memory? On Christmas Eve, our orchestra plays carols as the audience leaves. Two years ago when I was in the corps de ballet, I was taking off toward the dressing rooms, and one of our ballet mistresses was chasing me down saying, “Helgi wants to talk to you!” I thought, Oh no, what did I do wrong? He pulled me and a couple of my colleagues over and said, “You’ve been dancing so well this season that I want to make you soloists, effective immediately.” Meanwhile, the orchestra was playing “Joy to the World” in the background. 

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston. She is currently a Calderwood Fellow in writing at Emerson College.

Ballet Stars

What’s your biggest nightmare onstage?
Sometimes I’ll blank out and forget the choreography. I hate when I do it. I’ve had a few moments where later someone asked me, “What were you doing out there?” And I say, “Sorry! Got confused.”

You do a lot of tall girl roles, especially in Balanchine. What do you think makes you such a great fit for them?
I don’t know, because I’m only 5' 4"! But I feel so comfortable in those roles. People will see me after a show and say, “Oh, I thought you were so much taller!” My feet are big—that might be the reason.

Do you have any hidden talents?

I get on a sewing kick every few months. I’ll start sewing legwarmers and skirts and stuff like that. I cut a lot of things up and remake them. I have this thing for anything loose and drapey.  

I’ve heard you’re a fashionista. What’s your style like outside of the studio?

Casual, but I’m also very girly. When we dress up for events, I like to wear hats with nets and feathers. I love 1920s and 1940s fashion—really classy outfits with high waists and cinched belts. I do a lot of shopping on Etsy.com. It’s the devil.

Do you have any hobbies with your husband, principal Yury Yanowsky?
The other night I killed him at beach volleyball. He loves to play guitar and make me write the lyrics. We play Xbox Kinect together. And we love to travel. We go to Spain to see his family every summer, and we always go somewhere else, just the two of us.

If you could have one ballet superpower, what would it be?

I’d love to be able to turn without worrying about it. To do, like, quadruple fouettés. That would be fabulous.

You’re very active on Twitter.  What do you think about the role of social media for dancers?
There’s a fourth wall in ballet. It’s considered an elitist art form, and I don’t think it has to be. It’s good for people to see that we’re human. I think that if our audience is interested in us on a personal level, they will be more interested in seeing what we do onstage. Otherwise, they can just stay home and watch it on YouTube.

Ballet Training

BROOKLYN MACK
Company: The Washington Ballet
Age: 26
Top prizes: Boston International Ballet Competition, Helsinki International Ballet Competition, USA International Ballet Competition, Seoul International Dance Competition, Varna International Ballet Competition
Pre-competition rituals: “Working my butt off! And before any performance, I try to get to a mental place that I call ‘home.’ Nobody’s there but me and the ballet.”
Backstage music pick: “The song that Lil Wayne made for Michael Phelps called ‘I’m a Go Getta.’ Or Coldplay, Eminem or R. Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ or ‘The World’s Greatest’ from the Ali movie.”
Why he keeps competing: “In a company, you don’t always get a lot of individual attention. But when you train for a competition, every little thing is scrutinized. I grow a lot. It’s also a great networking tool. So many directors and prominent choreographers come to scout.”
What he does with his trophies: “My mom takes them. Each time, she’s like, ‘You’re gonna mess this up or lose it.’ But she likes to have them, so I’m fine with it.”  
Worst mistake: “Holding back because I didn’t want to make a mistake.”
Favorite competition memory: “My first competition. I didn’t get a medal, but I was able to just let go and dance completely and leave everything on the stage. It was the first time in my life that someone told me they cried watching me dance.”

HANNAH BETTES
School: The Royal Ballet School
Age: 16
Top prizes: Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix
In the wings: “I always review the storyline of the ballet and how my variation fits in that. I try to convince myself that I’m actually my character and this is happening to me. Then I pray.”
Good luck charm: “An energy wand that my friend’s mom (who’s a bit of a hippie) gave me last year. It’s literally just a little bronze-colored stick, five or six inches long. But it’s supposed to pull all of the negative energy around you into the wand and then give out positive energy. Ever since she gave it to me, it’s come with me to every competition.”
Worst mistake: “This year at YAGP Regionals, I fell during my Giselle variation. I was just doing a single turn! But I got back up and finished. My teacher always says, ‘If anything goes wrong, you still have to bow like it was the best dance ever.’ “
Strategy for nerves: “I stop thinking about the competition and focus on something completely random, like puppies.”
Dealing with the rivalry: “I like the competitive environment. It pushes me. Seeing all of those amazing dancers makes me want to be better. I want to be the best, I guess.”

TYLER DONATELLI
School: Southland Ballet Academy
Age: 15
Top prizes: Youth America Grand Prix, Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards
Pre-performance ritual: “I always eat a little piece of chocolate before I dance.”
Good luck charm: “My mom writes notes like ‘good luck’ or ‘have fun’ in my pointe shoes.”  
Strategy for nerves: “It’s hard in the early rounds because everybody is sizing each other up. But once it gets down to the end, you become friends with the other dancers and can just talk backstage.”  
How she breaks the ice with her competitors: “Sometimes I’ll compliment someone’s tutu. And the usual: ‘Good job,’ ‘good luck.’ ”
What she tells herself right before going on: “Have fun, and whatever happens, happens. You’re lucky to be doing this right now, so enjoy it.”

Ballet Stars

When Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo selected Corina Gill to perform alongside three of the company’s best-known dancers—Kathleen Breen Combes, Whitney Jensen and Lia Cirio—in his 2012 premiere Sharper Side of Dark, she did not shy away from the challenge. Within Elo’s dark, intriguingly beautiful universe, Gill created a magnetism all her own. Whether she was bursting into flight or showing off her pristine lines, what you noticed first were her eyes—deep, with an intense soulfulness that drew you in.

“It was a big moment for Corina, and she deserved every bit of it,” says company ballet master Tony Randazzo. “It’s a new step for a choreographer to work closely with her on a premiere. It shows that she has the maturity to really thrive in that capacity.” But this isn’t the first time that Gill, a Boston Ballet corps member, has proven her ability. Just three years ago, she was a critics’ sweetheart dancing one Balanchine lead after another at Los Angeles Ballet, before making the bold move to join the corps in Boston in 2009.

When Gill was growing up near San Diego, California, her mom would drive her to Black Mountain Dance Centre. There she studied an eclectic mix of ballet styles that included Cecchetti examinations. Early on, she became fascinated by Boston and its ballet company, and in her teens she attended Boston Ballet’s summer intensives.

 Though Gill was determined to have a ballet career, her father insisted that she attend college, so she studied dance at the University of California, Irvine, with David Allan, director of ballet studies. While in college, she performed with San Diego Ballet. After graduation, she danced with Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech before returning in 2002 to California to get married. She was 21 and wanted to build a career close to her husband, Cory, who worked for a Los Angeles car rental company.

The next few years were difficult. “There were many times when it seemed like a ballet career wasn’t going to work out for me,” she says. First, she joined Ballet Pacifica during a time when the company was frequently changing artistic direction. Two years later, she moved three hours north to join State Street Ballet, which meant frequent long drives back to L.A. to see her husband.

Then, in 2006, everything changed. A friend told her about a new Los Angeles company founded by Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary. She auditioned and was offered a contract. From its first season, Los Angeles Ballet thrived. And Gill quickly won the spotlight, dancing principal roles in the company’s Balanchine repertoire. “To be trusted to do that was incredible,” she says.

Three years in, she got a call from her former teacher David Allan, telling her that Boston Ballet needed a new dancer immediately. Gill loved her job, but she had never lost her childhood dream of dancing in Boston. “So I got a plane ticket and took class on Wednesday,” she says. “I was dancing with the company on Friday. And I was onstage the following Thursday.”

After the initial rush, she began to doubt herself. “When I first came to Boston, I almost felt like I was starting over, because I got scared all of a sudden,” she says. “I was in my dream company, and I had everything to lose if they ended up being disappointed in me.” Still, she was grateful to finally be dancing full-time and for the opportunity to be the breadwinner while her husband pursued his own dream, attending seminary school in Boston. (The couple are both devout Christians.) Gradually, Gill’s fears receded. 

“Corina has kept improving and adapting and has made a very strong place for herself in the company,” says Randazzo. “There’s an urgency to her approach. She’s not one to wait until the next rehearsal if she can accomplish something in the current one.”

Though her experience in the Boston corps de ballet has been very different from her time as a star of Los Angeles Ballet, Gill is happy. Last year, she danced “Kingdom of the Shades” in La Bayadère—every pinky finger had to be perfect. When the company performed, Gill witnessed the profound effect of their precision. “I tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye on the stage,” she says. “That moment of togetherness and being completely in sync with 23 other girls was the greatest of my career.”


At a Glance

Corina Gill
Schools: Black Mountain Dance Centre in San Diego; UC Irvine (Bachelor of Arts in Dance)
Former Companies: San Diego Ballet, Ballet Tech, Ballet Pacifica, State Street Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet
Favorite Role: The wedding pas de deux in David Allan’s Cinderella
Dream Role: Juliet
Dance Idol: Margot Fonteyn

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