Ballet Stars

When National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden was in high school, she earned a spot at Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s year-round program. She had loved their summer intensive and knew she wanted to dance professionally—but she also knew that she wasn’t ready to leave home. “I was reluctant to leave my family,” she says. “It was a hard decision, but I knew I was getting really good training at home.” She took a chance and stayed at her home studio, Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, until she graduated high school and auditioned for NBoC.

These days, many promising ballet students leave home for professional schools, hire personal coaches and jet from one competition to another. Those who lack the financial means for such training, or aren’t ready (or allowed) to leave home yet, may feel they have no chance at making it professionally. Pointe investigated four training “disadvantages” in today’s high-profile world. Here’s how to make sure you’re still on track for a career.

1. I train at my local studio.
With the ever-increasing demand for versatile training, it’s hard to get the necessary depth and variety of study at home, which is why moving away to attend a conservatory or company school is so appealing. They provide extensive classes in partnering, contemporary, character and pointe, as well as performance experience. Students dance alongside their more advanced peers, and have exposure to artistic directors and choreographers.

But at auditions, it’s not the name of your school that wins you the contract. “The bottom line is, we pick the dancers that we think are the best dancers,” says Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. “It doesn’t matter if you trained in Timbuktu.” Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater agrees: “I see kids that have been to some top schools, and something is missing from their training. Then I see kids with beautiful training, and I’ve never heard of their school.”

That said, dancers who study locally must be brutally honest about the quality and versatility of their training. Perhaps there aren’t boys to partner with, or few opportunities to learn different styles and genres. It’s up to you to supplement your training by seeking out classes, workshops and summer programs to complete a well-rounded dance education. Start by finding the best technical training in your area. (For some, this may mean taking classes at more than one studio.) Wheater recommends researching examples of school syllabi online and modeling your own training after one or two that align with your goals.

And don’t forget to embrace the benefits of your home studio. For Ogden, this meant more stage time than some of her peers at boarding schools received. For Ballet San Jose dancer Nicole Larson, who trained locally at the Naples Dance Conservatory, the biggest benefit was the one-on-one attention she received.
    
2. I go to a regular high school.

Many pre-professional dancers forgo traditional high school in favor of online study. The impetus here is legitimate: Online school is flexible, often free and takes less time in the day than regular high school, leaving more time for pre-professional training. But it also means giving up that traditional high school experience.

The decision here doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Ogden, for instance, attended a normal high school, but she made a special arrangement to receive credit for her dance training. She left school early before the last class period, arriving at her studio in time for an extra technique class. “I did a few ballet projects to receive those credits for art or P.E.,” she says.

Larson also attended a full-time high school and enjoyed having a life outside of ballet. She and Ogden agree that having non-dance friends is one of the benefits, though it’s hard to find time to socialize when you’re headed to rehearsal. “When your friends want to go to a football game or the movies and you have ballet—that was difficult,” says Larson. “I really tried to stay focused, because I knew I didn’t want to do anything else.”

3. I don’t compete.
Ballet competitions can be a controversial topic, but when approached the right way, they can be beneficial. Beyond the exposure and potential for resumé-boosting medals and scholarships, they allow students to learn how to perform under pressure, build confidence onstage and receive individualized feedback.

If you don’t have the means to participate in high-profile competitions, and you have a strong desire to do so, Wheater recommends setting up a student showcase at your home studio, where each student will perform variations for a panel of teachers who write personalized feedback. “Even if you don’t have the resources to compete, you can still have an evaluation system where you’re able to be really objective throughout the year on what you need to work on,” he says. Shelly Power, academy director at Houston Ballet Academy, also recommends attending nearby competitions as an audience member to learn more about the talent in your area and how you fit in. To gain experience outside of your comfort zone, make a regular practice of going to master classes in neighboring towns.

4. I don’t have a private coach.

Personalized feedback is vital to any aspiring dancer, but this doesn’t necessarily require hiring a private coach, which is often expensive. For Larson, her classes were small already, and she was even able to schedule individual sessions right at her home studio. At large schools, on the other hand, formally scheduled private lessons may be hugely beneficial.

If you’re looking for more individualized feedback but don’t have the funds for weekly private lessons with a star teacher, Morgan recommends contacting the company manager of your local professional ballet company. One of the company dancers may be willing to coach you and teach you repertoire for a reduced rate, especially during the off-season.

Gaining Exposure
At auditions, the big advantage your competitors have is exposure—so as you train, and especially during your last year, it’s up to you to be seen by everyone you can. Summer intensives are one of the best ways to meet teachers, choreographers and directors. Many offer scholarships and need-based financial aid. For Larson, her first professional opportunity came through a summer intensive with Milwaukee Ballet; at the program’s end, she was invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II. “That was what got my foot in the door,” she says.

Morgan notes that less exposed dancers should focus on building relationships. “It’s good to see someone multiple times,” she says of those who attend summer intensives and company auditions more than once. Directors may feel more comfortable offering a contract to someone if they gain an idea of the dancer’s consistency and personality.

Now’s the time to make your connections work for you—and you might be better connected than you realize. “There’s the saying, ‘six degrees of separation.’ Well, in the ballet world it’s probably two,” says Morgan. “Your teacher probably knows somebody who knows somebody.” For instance, during Ogden’s senior year, her teacher, a former professional dancer, recommended her to NBoC, and she was invited to audition. At 17, fresh out of her home studio, her career began. “I was less exposed, for sure,” says Ogden. “But I had a lot of support.”

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

Ballet Stars

When she was a teenager, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Seia Rassenti’s training was about as classical as it could get. A full-time bunhead at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she was determined to get a solid technical foundation. But she knew in her heart that she wanted to dance contemporary.  

Nearly every summer, Rassenti would attend a contemporary ballet program, like Complexions, The Ailey School or Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. “That was my outlet,” she says. “Each program had a different atmosphere, and I met some really cool people who had interests outside of ballet.” Then at summer’s end, she would faithfully return to the classical world and get back to “work.” For Rassenti, her classical training was her means to an end. And it paid off: She earned a contract with Charlotte Ballet’s second company (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre 2), known for its diverse and innovative repertoire.

The road to a contemporary ballet career isn’t a clear-cut path. And while strong classical technique is vital, nothing sticks out more than a bunhead in pink tights at a contemporary audition. That’s because traditional ballet training does not typically prepare dancers for the contemporary genre’s emphasis on collaborating, questioning, improvising and baring your soul even when it doesn’t feel pretty. So if a ballet dancer knows that this is the world she was made for, what can she do to prepare?

Branch Out
A classical foundation is essential for contemporary ballet companies, especially those that work on pointe. But classically trained dancers face a specific set of challenges: They have to learn to isolate each body part, pick up detailed choreography quickly and embrace being off-center. “You have to learn to trust your classical technique, to let go of it,” says Rassenti.

“I find that a lot of classically trained dancers lose their natural instincts,” says Josie Walsh, artistic director of Joffrey Ballet School’s Contemporary Ballet Intensive in San Francisco and founder of Ballet RED. “They’re trying to be this classical ideal, and they get very separate from something more organic.”

Walsh recommends supplementing your training with a variety of classes, like modern, jazz and even hip hop to practice freer styles of movement and learn how to pick up small details quickly. Dawn Fay, producing director of Wonderbound in Denver, Colorado, also recommends hip hop, explaining its benefits on a basic anatomical level: Whereas classical ballet tends to be smoother and utilizes “slow twitch” muscle fibers, hip hop involves sudden movements, which require finely tuned “quick twitch” muscle fibers.

Christine Cox, artistic and executive director of BalletX in Philadelphia, also recommends recreational classes like Zumba, or if you’re old enough, going to a dance club to find your innate rhythm and let go of trying to fit a mold. “It’s really important that dancers can move every part of their bodies in a new and different way,” she says.

A New Mindset
Contemporary teachers often talk about finding “honesty” in choreography. But what does that mean? At its most basic, “honesty” refers to embracing (and revealing) your unprotected, vulnerable humanity, as well as letting your own voice shine through the choreography. “A lot of contemporary choreographers look to their dancers for ideas and want them to be a part of the process,” says Cox.

But first, you must find your voice. Improvisation classes are one of the best ways to prepare. “It’s a craft,” says Walsh. “It’s something that you have to do every day and get used to.” Any style of improvisation is beneficial, but Karah Abiog, program director for Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, notes that Gaga is currently one of the most popular styles used for exploration.

It’s also important to gain experience with the creation process to practice adapting to different choreographers’ styles and learn how to pick up new material quickly. For Walsh, this is one of the most important qualities a dancer can possess: “When I’m choreographing, I would rather work with a dancer who is less talented but who can remember my choreography, than a more talented dancer who can’t remember, so that I can keep moving quickly and follow through the line of inspiration.”

Finding Balance
It might seem like aspiring contemporary dancers have to work double duty, logging both classical and exploratory training hours each week. “It doesn’t necessarily mean doubling your hours,” says Abiog. “It’s doubling your conscious way of working, your mindset.”

To do this, Cox suggests finding a training equation that works for you, and keeping it consistent. For instance, devoting 75 percent of your week to ballet, and 25 percent to other styles such as jazz, modern technique or improvisation.

Regardless, Cox recommends connecting with your classical base every day. Fay, Abiog and Walsh agree: While thorough classical training might not be required in all contemporary dance, impeccable classical technique is non-negotiable to join a contemporary ballet company. Cleanliness and purity of line are difficult to instill in the body otherwise.

Strategizing Your Career
Because “contemporary dance” is such a broad term, the first step towards approaching a career is to identify choreographers that you admire. Begin by researching online and going to performances, then by attending workshops, intensives or master classes hosted by your favorite companies and choreographers. Because they’re all so different, it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you make a commitment.

Networking is key. Contemporary companies tend to be small, with dancers participating in the creation process, so most directors want to get to know you on a personal level before offering a contract. When Walsh needs a new dancer quickly, for instance, the last thing she wants to do is organize a large audition. “I’ll think, I really like that girl who came to my program in San Francisco,” she says. “Taking you into a company is like taking you into a family. You’re with these people every day.”

Most importantly, think about your career goals: For example, would you prefer a repertoire that offers both classical and contemporary works, or one that’s strictly contemporary? Do you want to work with one choreographer or many? Would you prefer a company that works on pointe, or are you comfortable dancing mostly in socks?

For Rassenti, the mixed repertoire at Charlotte Ballet was a comfortable transition. But by the time she joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, she was ready to jump into contemporary full-time—and she hasn’t looked back. “In this company, we create a lot of new works,” she says. “I know that there is a part of my soul in every piece.”
 

 

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

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.

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