At age 18, Katherine Barkman packed her bags to move nearly halfway around the world after receiving an email from Ballet Manila's artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. A competition dancer with no professional experience, Barkman submitted a video to Macuja-Elizalde, and jumped at the opportunity to start her career as a principal with the Southeast Asian company. "It was an unconventional path, but I had to just go for it!"
Barkman's journey started in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where her dance training quickly progressed from recreational classes to studying the Vaganova method with Nadia Pavlenko at the Academy of International Ballet Theater. By 16, she was training privately with Pavlenko for six to seven hours a day. "Most children start that syllabus at age 10, so I had to learn quickly," she notes. "It was difficult, but the Russian style worked for my body and set the tone for me as a dancer."
As told to Julie Diana
Juliet is one of my favorite roles—you go through every emotion in just three acts. I had done different versions of the ballet before, but it was an amazing opportunity when my director Stanton Welch created the role for me. I watched a lot of videos to prepare and struggled at the beginning because I was trying to copy what other ballerinas had done. It took me a while to find my own way. But now, every step comes from deep inside.
I love that Juliet starts as an innocent little girl, playing with the nurse like she's her best friend. When she goes to the ball, she sees this person that moves her world around. I'm married now, and know what it means to give everything to someone and make decisions that will change your life. And because of the love you have for that person, it is worth it.
(Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)
In Balanchine's comedic Coppélia, San Francisco Ballet's Frances Chung brings out Swanilda's playful side.
All of Swanilda's actions come from a place of pure fun. She's kind of sassy, but I like bringing out her playfulness instead of taking a more bratty approach. The role comes quite naturally to my personality. When my partner and I are in the studio, we're very playful even though we're working hard and refining everything. I try to have a good time and I think that it translates onstage.
As Swanilda, my love for Franz is very youthful, like when you hit someone because you like him. I'm quite confident in myself and in our love, even though I see him blowing kisses at another girl (really a doll). I get mad for a second, but at the end of the day I know he's going to choose me. That's my underlying feeling. When I finally make the connection that she's a doll, I think it's hilarious!
From the outside, one might assume that the stars onstage are leaders offstage, too. It might be so, but life in a company is usually more complex. Opportunities to volunteer, teach or represent fellow colleagues allow dancers at any rank to develop important skills and make their voices heard. Others take the lead simply by lifting company morale or setting a good example in the studio. In fact, leadership takes many forms—and you don't have to be a principal ballerina to be an influential company member whom others look up to. For these three dancers, stepping into leadership roles has given greater meaning and fulfillment to their careers.
(photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB)
Carefree and confident, New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck lights up the stage in “Fascinatin' Rhythm," one of the principal solos in Balanchine's Who Cares? “It's one of my favorites," she says. “Every time I perform it, I feel like I'm doing it for the first time." Choreographed for Patricia McBride in 1970, “Fascinatin' Rhythm" requires impeccable technique and serious musicality to show off George Gershwin's jazzy rhythms. Here, Peck shares how she makes the solo such a showstopper.
“Musicality is number one," says Peck. “It's the driving force behind the whole variation." She recommends finding moments of stillness to contrast faster movements. In the first section, Peck sustains her piqué coupé to plié, “because it makes the hitch-kick afterward seem that much more surprising." Before the slow sultry section, she pauses before slinking into another pose. “You can be still in the midst of the crazy-fast solo and show another facet of your dancing."
The “Switch Switch"
Dancers tend to have trouble sustaining their balance during the fast arabesque/à la seconde/arabesque body changes (aka the “switch switch"). To stay over her standing leg, Peck suggests hitting a good arabesque first. “If you cheat and flip right to second, you're not going to do it." She also relies on her focus. “When I go to second, I look at my leg and then back to front for the arabesque. Torquing the body helps and gives me something else to think about."
Play with Syncopation
Peck performs the échappé section differently every time. While she doesn't change the steps, she syncopates them in various ways. “I let the music inspire me to hold an échappé here, or a passé there. It's whatever I want to do in the moment!" When she goes to hold a position, she commits to it. “That makes it more exciting for me."
It's easy to lose steam towards the end of the two-and-a-half-minute solo, so Peck tricks herself into believing it's easier than it actually is. “Instead of thinking of it as one long variation, I imagine it as three sections: the opening, the slow part in the middle and the end. From the échappés on, you're home free!"
To control the last diagonal of dizzying turns, focus less on your spot and more on the rhythm. “Keep in tempo with the four piqué walks and step-up double pencil. Find your position with the leg at 45 degrees and don't let it waver," Peck says, because sneaking into the turn will make it even harder. “If you really listen to the music, it will drive you home."
Julie Kent looks back on her nearly 30-year career at American Ballet Theatre
Who was your biggest inspiration while growing up as a dancer?
My first experience in a professional environment was when I was a supernumerary in New York City Ballet’s Coppélia. Patricia McBride was so kind and gentle with all the children. That made a big impact on me. Balanchine was still alive, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell were dancing. They were the most exciting, exotic and wonderful creatures.
You joined ABT when you were just 16. What was the most valuable thing you learned during those early years?
I learned to learn. I studied all the great ballerinas at ABT to identify what made each of them so wonderful, and to see if there was any of that I could develop in myself. I could never balance like Cynthia Gregory—I realized that was beyond my capability. But I tried to understand how she did it and how she used that command of her physicality to enthrall people.
What would you say is the stamp of your dancing?
It’s hard to think about what’s so identifiable about my work because I’m wearing it from the inside out. But my mother will watch a performance and say to me, “I forgot you’re my daughter.” I try to bring to life the characters in a way that makes the persona of Julie Kent secondary.
Of your extensive repertoire, which ballet was the hardest to learn and perform?
Learning the third act of MacMillan’s Anastasia was really hard. I wrote it all down and just studied it. It takes place in an insane asylum, and you cannot see the stage from the wings. There were no cues. Once you started, you were on your own. That was a wonderful artistic learning experience, and it really changed things for me.
How has motherhood influenced your dancing?
It’s made me stronger physically and emotionally. I was able to go into the studio after the birth of my children and accomplish more in less time. I had a much clearer idea of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I’ve been dancing 11 years as a mother. It’s been something that’s added to my life as a dancer.
Why did you choose to make ABT your home for almost 30 years?
It was the people, especially my husband, associate artistic director Victor Barbee, who were so nurturing and gave me support and encouragement. Of course everybody struggles and goes through an enormous amount of stress, doubt and agony. That’s the life of an artist. But it’s the people who help you get through it that make it all worthwhile. And for me, those people were at ABT.
What advice do you have for aspiring professionals?
Take pride in what you are accomplishing, regardless of where it takes you. We all have different capabilities, but the intention is the same for anyone who takes first position at the barre. We stand up. Our pursuit is to improve ourselves.
Kitchens with Jerome Tisserand in "Afternoon of a Faun" (photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)
The woman’s role in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun is surprisingly hard. The plot seems straightforward enough: two dancers happen upon each other in a studio. But the character, created for Tanaquil Le Clercq in 1953, oozes sensuality, innocence and vanity while responding—through the mirror—to her partner’s gaze. Here, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kylee Kitchens offers insights into the “less is more” approach to Robbins’ choreography.
Find Your Focus
The stage is set like a studio, with a door upstage and barres lining the walls. “The most difficult part of the ballet is creating that fourth wall,” says Kitchens. “You have to look at the audience like you’re looking in the mirror.” She uses the real mirror in rehearsal to memorize where her focus needs to be, angling her head like she’s studying her own reflection, or that of her partner. “It has to be realistic. At the theater, we use an exit sign as a focal point so that we’re looking at exactly the same spot.”
Create Tension Through Stillness
Motionless moments emphasize the sexual tension between the two characters; wobbling can break the mood. For instance, after swooping down a diagonal, the woman stops her momentum mid-step at first sight of her partner. To secure this pedestrian pose, while making it look both natural and sharp, Kitchens turns her standing leg in for balance. “Later, when I flip onto his shoulder, I get my arms up and just hold myself,” she says. Once at the top of the lift, she resists the urge to fidget as her partner lowers her down.
Robbins’ style is natural and understated, with much of the acting built into the choreography. “It’s more about your body language, how you angle your shoulders and your head,” says Kitchens. “I try to let my eyes read without being overly dramatic with my face.” The character is inquisitive and self-absorbed, but the movements are simple and clear. Try not to add mannerisms or overdo the subtle details. “The choreography will speak for itself.”
Relate to Your Partner
Upon seeing the man, the woman is aloof yet flirtatious. “It’s like those teenage years that are so raw and innocent, and there’s a bubbling of sexuality,” says Kitchens, who remembers feeling the boy’s hands on her waist during her first partnering class. “You pretend you don’t care.” The tension builds until the end of the pas de deux, when the man kisses her cheek. “You’re watching yourself in the mirror, watching it happen,” says Kitchens. “You decide to leave before it gets to be too much.”
Use Breath for Effect
Afternoon of a Faun is not a stamina piece. “I never feel out of breath,” says Kitchens. Instead, she uses her breath to show visceral responses at key moments. When her partner touches her waist for the first time, Kitchens gasps before stepping away. Later she takes a deep inhale before leaning into a luscious backbend, her partner gently caressing her hair. And before the final kiss, she holds her breath in anticipation. “I don’t want the audience to see my stomach going in and out.”
Auditions are an unnerving fact of life for dancers—and can be especially unsettling when they’re done in the comfort of your own company. When visiting choreographers and répétiteurs come to town, they prefer to have a day or two to work with the company before making their casting decisions. The good news is that when someone from the outside is casting roles, dancers often end up on the same playing field regardless of rank, with an equal shot at getting noticed. And if you make the most of the audition, your career can get a major boost. Here are some tips for putting your best self forward.
Before the Big Day
Prior to visiting, a choreographer will probably do some homework by watching videos of the company and getting a feel for the dancers ahead of time. Trey McIntyre, director of the Trey McIntyre Project, starts by talking to the director and rehearsal assistants first. “I do my best to explain what I’m trying to achieve with the piece and get suggestions in terms of who they think might fulfill those roles the best,” he says. If you have a reputation for being focused, versatile and a fast learner, you’ll be at the top of the list.
You can gain a competitive edge if you do a little research of your own. “The more prepared you are, the more you can adjust to what the choreographer might want,” says Dance Theatre of Harlem member Ashley Jackson. Before someone comes to set a piece, Jackson looks up the choreographer’s biography online, watches examples of their work on YouTube and reads recent reviews to get a sense of what to expect. For added insight, she tries to talk to friends who have already worked with the choreographer. “You could learn that the person prefers dancers to be more internal, with less showmanship,” she says. Knowing that can help you adjust your projection accordingly.
While you don’t need to stand front and center to get noticed, where you are in the studio—and what you’re doing—says a lot. “It’s important to find at least a couple moments when you’re forward and present,” says choreographer Julia Adam, who has created work for companies like San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. “Hiding in the back can look like you’re disinterested.” Jackson prefers standing in the front but off to the side so she doesn’t have the pressure of being on center. She also tries to make eye contact with the choreographer to make a connection and convey her interest.
McIntyre will hesitate to work with dancers if it looks like they’re afraid to expose themselves artistically. “If someone’s using anything to hide, whether it’s where they stand in class or if they continually make a joke of their mistake instead of focusing on how to fix it,” he says, “I’ll take pause.” McIntyre and Adam also warn against wearing too much junk. “I don’t mind funky style,” says Adam, “but you absolutely have to be able to see the body. That’s also showing an openness and vulnerability, rather than hiding.”
Have a Focused and Open Mind
Choreographers might value different things when it comes to movement quality or aesthetics, but they appreciate a strong work ethic and positive approach. “I look for people who are extremely focused in the studio, who want to take chances creatively and devote themselves to the process,” says McIntyre. “They should do everything they can to describe the kind of person they are in rehearsal and what I can expect them to be like.”
When auditioning for a new ballet, Jackson realizes that her ability to absorb details is being scrutinized as much as her dancing. “I listen to other people’s corrections and avoid talking in the back of the room,” she says. “When other groups are going through combinations, I go with them or work on the side by myself.” More than once, Jackson got into a piece because the choreographer saw her reviewing material in the corner. She’s also made an impression by learning other people’s choreography, even the men’s steps. “If you have to do a version of it later, you already know it,” she says.
If the choreographer teaches material as part of the audition process, it’s important to be adaptable. “You have to be open to what the choreographer wants to create,” says Jackson. “Sometimes it feels weird, or you’re not sure about a step, but the trust needs to be there.”
Adam concurs. When she’s unfamiliar with dancers, she tries to make the most honest connections as quickly as possible. “I try to get a sense of not only how they move but who they are as people,” she says. Adam looks at the dancers’ musicality and whether or not they take direction well. “I can’t reinforce enough the importance of being open,” she says. “Show who you are in your body and in your mind, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Then you’ll be put in the right place.”