Summer intensive students in contemporary class at Arts Umbrella. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Arts Umbrella.
Before attending the Alonzo King LINES Ballet summer program at age 18, Maya Harr did not have much experience with improvisation. In fact, she was such an introverted bunhead that even the word seemed scary. "The teacher came into the studio, turned off the lights, put on music and told us to dance," says Harr, now a LINES company member. "We didn't stop moving for 45 minutes, and I was grateful for the freedom I've found."
You might feel obligated to spend your summer honing your technique at a classical ballet program. Yet as ballet companies open their repertoires to more contemporary works from choreographers like Aszure Barton, Kyle Abraham, Crystal Pite and Nicolo Fonte, you may want to consider opening yourself up to contemporary styles and the outside-the-box thinking that underlies them. "This work is necessary for the future of ballet," says Dwight Rhoden, artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and its affiliated summer intensive.
Lia Cirio and John Lam perform Tar and Feathers with Boston Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
A few years ago, Boston Ballet principal Lia Cirio was tasked with performing a contemporary program one week and dancing in The Sleeping Beauty the next. "We were doing Jiˇrí Kylián's Tar and Feathers, which had me sliding around in socks," says Cirio. "The day after the premiere, I had to run my Aurora variation. I needed my technique to be stable, for both my brain and body."
Being in a ballet company doesn't mean you will always be dancing entire evenings, let alone rehearsal days, in pointe shoes. With today's preference for more eclectic mixed bills, a dancer might need to shift from pointe shoes to socks, slippers or even heels. Yet moving between footwear can be tricky—you can easily get injured if you are not prepared for the differences in sensation and shifts in balance. But when you're frequently asked to switch footwear, what's your body, much less your feet, to do?
Bouder in Lauren Lovette's "Red Spotted Purple." Photo by Bret Shuford, Courtesy Lake Tahoe Dance Festival.
Last week, Ashley Bouder joined an all-star cast of performers at the 5th annual Lake Tahoe Dance Festival. Co-directors Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher curated a dramatic evening that included a world premiere by Marco Pelle, iconic masterworks by Lester Horton and Paul Taylor, contemporary favorites by Baecher and Robert Moses, and the California premiere of Red Spotted Purple—a solo for Bouder choreographed by her New York City Ballet colleague, Lauren Lovette.
Named after a butterfly, Red Spotted Purple was made for The Ashley Bouder Project's most recent season at the Joyce Theater's Ballet Festival. Lovette's playful and free-spirited solo seemed ripe for an outdoor performance, especially against Tahoe City's gorgeous landscape of pine trees and its blue lake. Featuring both a commissioned score by Stephanie Ann Boyd and a gorgeous dress designed by Michelle Smith of MILLY, the solo dance was in line with Bouder's mission to promote more diversity in ballet's creative process. I caught the performance in Tahoe City and chatted with the two women via email about the experience of making this dance.
How did this commission come about?
Ashley Bouder: I was brainstorming female choreographers that I'd want to create a solo for me. I thought, who better than a colleague that grew up watching me dance? There isn't a female choreographer out there that knows my dancing better, or my personality on and off stage. I think Lauren is brilliant, and after having seen her two pieces for NYCB, I felt that she could make something special with a clear point of view and message. I wanted the solo to open the [Joyce] program and I just knew she could make a statement piece to fit.
Miranda Silveira was a member of San Francisco Ballet's Trainee Program before making her way into the company. Here she's pictured in rehearsal for Balanchine's Serenade. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Receiving a second company or trainee contract can help bridge the gap from student to professional. Whether you make it into the main company afterwards or move on to another one, these years, if danced to the fullest, can be valuable to your life and career.
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet students in class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.
Courtney Henry remembers a time in middle school when she grew several inches just as her dance training began to intensify. Now a member of Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference in Germany, Henry would take dance classes at her school during the day, then have more classes and rehearsal at her studio afterwards. "As a result of this constant expansion in every direction—my hormone levels were growing as well—I remember enduring painful cramps in my lower and upper legs almost every night."
Such pains are typical symptoms of a growth spurt, or rapid growth in a short period of time. While they can happen at any point during childhood, growth spurts are most common during early to mid-adolescence: ages 12 to 13 for girls and 13 to 15 for boys. According to Chris Fisher, a physical therapist for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, height change can sometimes be visible in a one-week period. During such a dramatic phase of development, young dancers need to have extra patience and support surrounding their ballet training.
Nadia Mara (second from left) with Atlanta Ballet patrons. Photo by J. Clemmons, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Ballet companies cannot survive without the financial support of their patrons and donors. In addition to underwriting new buildings and world premieres, and contributing to endowments, individual patrons and corporate donors often sit on the company's board. Many even sponsor the salaries of dancers, or support their side projects.
Yet your ballet training does not prepare you for the formal, sometimes awkward socializing you are asked to do with these VIPs at galas, backstage champagne toasts and other events. Atlanta Ballet dancer Nadia Mara remembers feeling uncomfortable at patron events her first year as a professional. "My English wasn't great," says Mara, who grew up in Uruguay, "and I was unsure of what to do, how to act." Yet she found that as she gained more experience speaking with patrons about where she had come from and her interests, the awkwardness melted away. "We have so much in common. We are passionate about the same things: ballet, art, fitness, culture."
Cultivating strong relationships with donors and patrons often means stepping outside your comfort zone. "Our livelihood depends on them," says Sona Kharatian, a dancer with The Washington Ballet. "It is important that we make them feel included and let them know we know they are doing this for the greater good of culture in their city." Read on for some tips on how to initiate conversation and make some new, supportive friends.
Ashley Thursby in Louisville Ballet's "Swan Lake." Photo by Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.
In her third year as a full company member of Alberta Ballet, Alexandra Gibson was amazed to learn she would be understudying Myrtha in Giselle. "Prior to that I had mostly played to my strengths in innocent, young roles," remembers Gibson, who didn't expect to actually perform the icy Queen of the Wilis. Yet when the first-cast Myrtha sprained her ankle a few weeks before opening night, Gibson was suddenly cast for six out of the nine shows. "Learning how to be cold, authoritative and mature in a short amount of time was as challenging as the choreography."
Every once in a while, you'll encounter roles that just don't click. Sometimes you will be cast against type, or thrown into a part that you don't feel ready for. Other times, unfamiliar choreography or movement styles may throw you off your game. In those instances, how do you remain unflappable and open to feedback in order to mold your body and mind to the role at hand? Three professionals get real about how they have struggled to do just that, and how they have grown as artists through the process.
Alexandra Gibson and artists of Alberta Ballet in "Giselle." Photo by Maximillian Tortoriello, Courtesy Alberta Ballet.
Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.
"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.