Remie Goins, a student at International City School of Ballet in Atlanta, performs at the YAGP finals. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP.
You've watched First Position, the 2011 documentary about dancers at Youth America Grand Prix. You've studied videos of past ballet competition winners online. Now, you're interested in joining those elite ranks by entering a competition yourself. But what if your school doesn't have a program set up to guide you through the process? Pointe asked four experts to break down what ballet competition newbies need to know.
As a teen, Louisville Ballet dancer Lexa Daniels knew college was the right path for her. "I wanted to have a career in ballet," she says, "but I wanted to get a foundational education first." After considering several schools, Daniels realized that the University of Utah was the best fit. What tipped the scales in Utah's favor? "At that point in my life, I was looking for true classical ballet," she says, "and the other schools had a more contemporary approach. I also liked Utah's close ties with Ballet West. There's a lot of crossover between the company and the university."
Myriad factors go into choosing a college, from location and cost to campus amenities and potential double majors. But if your goal is to become a professional ballet dancer after graduation, you'll first need to determine which schools are equipped to guide you toward that dream. As you investigate your options, look for these key signs of a strong ballet program.
The Kirov Academy's Irina Vakhromeeva teaching class. Photo by Pablo Galli, Courtesy Kirov Academy.
As a pre-professional dancer, you need training that will help you transition as smoothly as possible into the rigorous environment of a professional ballet company. Among other considerations, that means developing strong and seamless pointework. Chances are, you're spending a lot of your classes and rehearsal time in pointe shoes right now.
That said, there are real philosophies behind the role that pointework plays in class. You may be required to wear pointe shoes throughout all of your regular technique classes; or perhaps your studio prefers you to wear flat shoes for barre before putting pointe shoes on for center, or to spend the entire class in ballet slippers, offering separate pointe classes instead. With such differences in training methods, you may feel that you're missing out on something. Luckily, each of these approaches is designed to strengthen you as a dancer—they just accomplish that goal in different ways. Pointe spoke to faculty members at four prestigious ballet academies for added insight into each philosophy.
Save Pointe Shoes for Pointe Class
At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, advanced students wear slippers throughout their technique classes. But CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow notes that students are still getting plenty of pointework. "They're in a separate pointe class six days a week," she says. "Then, they'll often have several hours of rehearsal. On Saturdays, they might spend three to five hours in pointe shoes."
So why not wear pointe shoes in technique class? "We want our students to really feel the floor in flat slippers, especially in center exercises," says Good-Boresow. "When you're jumping, you need to learn how to land quietly, rolling through your toes, the ball of your foot and then the heel, while still getting the maximum height of the jump. Also, jumping in pointe shoes can shorten the depth of your plié, and we want dancers to experience the full extent of their demi-plié."
Most of CPYB's pointe classes take place immediately following technique class, so students are already warm. "We believe that putting on pointe shoes with fully warmed-up feet, calves and Achilles tendons helps our students sustain their bodies," Good-Boresow explains. After about a half hour of standard pointe exercises like relevés and échappés at the barre and in the center, the remainder of class is spent doing dancier phrases. "We want students to be able to do anything they'd do in their ballet slippers on pointe."
Technique Class On Pointe
CPYB students taking pointe class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the School of American Ballet in New York City has students in its advanced level—generally age 15 and up—wear pointe shoes in every technique class, including at the barre. It's a tradition that comes from George Balanchine himself. "Mr. Balanchine wanted our pointe shoes to feel like a second skin," says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at SAB and a graduate of the school. "Dancing in them should never feel foreign."
Wearing pointe shoes from the start of class pushes students to develop the same facility they'd have in their flat shoes. That facility is vital when performing Balanchine's repertoire, which is known for its fast, articulate footwork. "To dance Balanchine's ballets, students have to learn how to use their toes and roll through their feet in pointe shoes," Mazzo explains. "We work on gently caressing the floor rather than letting the shoe hit the floor with a bang."
It's important to note that wearing pointe shoes for technique class is not the same as taking a pointe class. Barre exercises at SAB are designed to warm dancers' feet up, rather than to force them into weight-bearing pointework before they're ready. "From the start—tendus, jetés, ronds de jambe—we're working the feet," Mazzo says. Because of this extensive warm-up, she feels that Balanchine training can help students build strength and avoid injury. "Dancing in pointe shoes forces you to pull up and find your balance, even standing on flat," she says. "From barre onward, you're getting stronger and stronger."
The Middle Ground
There's quite a bit of gray area between these two philosophies. At the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, pre-professional students will often change into pointe shoes for center exercises in addition to their separate pointe classes. "I don't have them on pointe at the beginning of class because they need to warm up every muscle first," says Irina Vakhromeeva, a classical ballet instructor at the school. "The whole body should be ready to go on pointe—not just the feet."
She adds that on certain days, she might not have students wear pointe shoes for center at all. Her decision might depend on the repertoire they're currently rehearsing, as well as on any technique concerns she wants to address, such as rolling in. "If we put our feet in first position, all five toes must be on the floor. Sometimes in pointe shoes it can be hard to feel this." Students are still in pointe shoes for several hours a day, so Vakhromeeva doesn't feel anything is lost by having them take class in slippers.
At Ballet Academy East in New York City, whether or not advanced dancers wear pointe shoes for technique class is often left to the teacher's discretion. "If they don't have a pointe class that day because of rehearsals, we might focus on pointework in center," says Cheryl Yeager, a senior faculty member. "On an individual basis, I might tell a dancer to put her pointe shoes on for center—or to leave them off, if I want to work on something like higher jumps. We don't have a set policy. In general, our advanced dancers know when they should be wearing pointe shoes and when they should take a break. It's fluid, rather than black and white."
Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh in Jiři Kylián's "Petite Mort." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
If you're a member of a repertory company, tight rehearsal timelines are often a fact of life. You might have only a few weeks to memorize and master a piece before you take the stage. In that time, you'll need to absorb not only the steps but also the choreographer's particular style—the qualities and quirks that set that choreographer apart. Should the movement be buoyant or grounded, fluid or staccato? Is your port de bras meant to be classical or pedestrian? How should you relate to your fellow dancers, and to the audience? Answering these questions will take your performance to the next level. After all, a ballet is so much more than the sum of its steps.
"The ballet isn't going to be the ballet without the choreographer's intention and style," says Sandra Jennings, a longtime répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust. "Balanchine had an intent in his choreography that affects how we move, from our musicality to the way we use our feet on the floor and how the man offers his hand to the woman in partnering. Those nuances matter."
Absorbing a ballet's style should be an integral part of the rehearsal process. But it's not always easy, especially if you've trained in a style that's completely different. Here, three dancers share how they adapted to stylistic challenges in their repertoire. Follow their lead the next time you're thrust out of your comfort zone.
Gabriella Yudenich is one of those dancers who looks completely at home in the ballet studio. A petite brunette with sparkling eyes, the Pennsylvania Ballet soloist has an infectious laugh that she doesn’t hesitate to unleash, even in the middle of a packed, slightly frantic rehearsal. Whether in rehearsal or performance, she stands out for her buoyant jump and luscious, fluid port de bras. Yudenich has dance in her genes: Her parents, Barbara Sandonato and Alexei Yudenich, were principal dancers with PB in the 1960s and ’70s. Nonetheless, when Yudenich decided she wanted to pursue ballet as a career, she found herself up against some pretty serious odds.
“I didn’t have natural turnout, natural feet or easy extension,” Yudenich says. “When I was 15, a doctor actually told me that I was not built for the profession and that I would never make it as a dancer!” But equipped with a serious work ethic and an unwavering passion for the art form, Yudenich, now 25, has become a performer one Philadelphia reviewer called “electrifying”—and her star is still on the rise.
Though her parents retired from dancing before she was born, “from the time I was little, I always remember ballet being there,” Yudenich says. She accompanied her parents to their dance teaching jobs and, when she was 6, started taking classes herself, both with her mother and with other teachers at studios where her mother taught. Still, dance was only one of many childhood interests. While Yudenich quickly fell in love with story ballets and enjoyed being onstage, she didn’t always like the discipline and routine of class.
Her turning point came when she saw Backstage at the Kirov, a behind-the-scenes video following Kirov Ballet dancer Altynai Asylmuratova through rehearsal and performance. “I was so captured by her life,” Yudenich says. “It struck a chord with me. I told my mom, ‘I know what I want to be—a ballerina!’ She said, ‘Oh, then you have a lot of work to do.’ ”
That hard work came in the form of intense training at The Rock School, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, School of American Ballet, among others. And it paid off: At 18, Yudenich was invited to join Pennsylvania Ballet II. She became an apprentice with PB at 20, and a member of the corps soon after. In September 2007, she was promoted to soloist, thanks in part to the kind of fairy-tale debut most corps dancers only dream of. Cast as the understudy for Myrta in PB’s February 2007 production of Giselle, Yudenich ended up dancing on opening night, and her commanding performance won an enthusiastic response from audience members and critics alike.
“Gabby has a strong and reliable technique, with a wonderful ballon in her jump. But the most important aspect of her dancing is her performance quality,” explains PB Artistic Director Roy Kaiser. “She demands that you watch her.”
Yudenich excels in both classical and contemporary work, and has performed the role of the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. She has also danced a featured role in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Kazimir’s Colours. Her dream roles—Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Nikiya in La Bayadère—reflect the special place she holds in her heart for the classics. Yet no matter what the role, it all comes back to the music: “As a child, if I heard Tchaikovsky, even though I didn’t know it was Tchaikovsky, it just made me want to move,” she says. “That’s why I absolutely had to dance. When the music is beautiful, it makes me so emotional—and then to dance to that music is such a treat. It’s like my body can almost breathe through the music by dancing.” Kathryn Holmes is a dancer and writer in New York City.