If you are a dance lover in South Korea, EunWon Lee is a household name. The delicate ballerina and former principal at the Korean National Ballet danced every major classical role to critical acclaim, including Odette/Odile, Giselle, Kitri, Nikiya and Gamzatti. Then, at the peak of her career, Lee left it all behind.
In 2016, she moved to Washington, DC, to join The Washington Ballet. The company of 26 is unranked, making Lee simply a dancer—not a soloist, not a principal and not a star, like she was back home.
"I try to challenge myself, and always I had the urge to widen my experience and continue to improve," she says one blustery winter day after company class, still glowing from the exertion of honing, stretching and strengthening. "When I had a chance to work with Julie Kent, I didn't hesitate."
More often than not, a dancer stumbles before she soars. Sarah Walborn breezed through her training years at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, spending summers at San Francisco Ballet School. After high school, she accepted SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s offer to become a trainee, and by her second year was hired as a company apprentice. “I had a phenomenal time,” she says. “I really felt a connection to the company.”
Then the bottom fell out. At the end of her apprenticeship, Walborn wasn’t taken into the corps. SFB hired no apprentices that year, but Walborn blamed herself.
“It was my first job,” Walborn, 22, says. “I didn’t have the confidence, so I held back.” With only a year to prove herself, she lost not only focus, but also technique. Walborn learned too late that dancing in a large company meant she was responsible for maintaining a top technical level without the watchful eyes of teachers.
She returned home to spend a year at CPYB rebuilding—both her technique and her confidence. That spring, Walborn hit the road, auditioning nearly every week, about 24 auditions in all. When artistic director Septime Webre expressed interest after a Washington Ballet audition, Walborn said “yes” without hesitation. She sensed that a small company of just 18 dancers might be a better fit for her.
“Despite her classical training, Sarah has an energy that I find very modern,” says Webre. “There’s something fresh about her—she’s a contemporary ballerina, but she can still handle the classics.”
Webre offered Walborn a studio company contract. She took it, relying on her parents and a summer job to pay expenses (studio company dancers only receive a stipend for rehearsals and performances). The experience gave her time to get to know the main company: She took their morning classes and joined them in large ballets like The Nutcracker and Le Corsaire, sometimes dancing second-cast soloist parts or understudying lead roles.
Since her upgrade to an apprentice position at the beginning of this season, she says her job hasn’t changed much, aside from the pay scale. Yet Walborn feels a greater sense of responsibility. “I have more expectations on me now,” she says. “Before I just wanted to get into the company. Now my goal is to live up to my peers and support them.”
She works alongside the company dancers, beginning with a 9:45 am technique class, then a rehearsal, a lunch break between 2 pm and 3 pm, and more rehearsals until 6 pm. So far, she’s danced in Don Quixote, a demi-soloist part in Webre’s Great Gatsby and in Karole Armitage’s premiere Brahms on Edge. She spends nights working on her online University of Phoenix math course. Some free weekends she drives to Pennsylvania for maintenance classes at CPYB.
“I look at this as another training year and a chance to show what I have,” Walborn says. Webre usually hires apprentices for two years and hopes
that those dancers will work well in the intimate family-like atmosphere so they can move into the company. Not every apprentice becomes a company member, but it remains the best doorway.
Still smarting from her experience in San Francisco, Walborn is thankful to have an extra apprentice year to find her footing. “I want to be in a place that’s going to challenge me, but what matters most is how I feel about my dancing,” Walborn says. “For so many years, I was worried about what other people thought. Now I know that if my dancing has flow, effort, feeling and a reason behind it, it’s going to look good.”
Whenever San Francisco Ballet soloist Elana Altman sees her name on the cast list for Giselle’s Myrta, she knows it’s time to start preparing for the role’s high-flying grand allégro and stamina-testing
jeté sequence. Does that mean she does extra petit allégro in pointe class? No. Altman, like many women ballet dancers who want to build strength and endurance, drops into a men’s class instead. In addition to reaping technical benefits, Altman says she relishes the chance to cover lots of space in the men’s combinations.
More and more ballerinas are dancing with the men. Some take men’s class because it provides opportunities to tackle the large-scale movements that normal technique classes generally don’t include. Others find that the unique technical challenges of men’s class—the turns, jumps and beats—make them stronger dancers and performers. And men’s classes can also help prepare them for the ballet world’s increasingly blurred gender lines: Women today are often expected not only to be able to soar in Myrta’s grands jetés, but also to master bravura jumps and turns—in pointe shoes, no less.
What dancers like Altman can expect from a men’s class depends on the teacher. Some instructors start to build strength for virtuoso moves early in the class, with more pliés, tendus and beats at the barre. Other men’s classes may differ from a regular ballet class only when they reach the center, by putting a greater emphasis on large leaps that cover space, double turns in the air, multiple pirouettes and batterie.
School of American Ballet faculty member (and former New York City Ballet principal) Jock Soto, who is “very glad” to see NYCB ballerinas Ashley Bouder, Abi Stafford, Sara Mearns, Teresa Reichlen and Sterling Hyltin in his men’s classes, says that he particularly emphasizes jumps. “We work a lot on very clean technique in the jumps,” he says. “The girls jump in their class too, but they’re mainly focused on pointework. For the men’s class, we stress how to make each jump look precise.” Bouder in particular has seen this work pay off: Soto says she can now do clean double sauts de basque while wearing pointe shoes.
Though many women, like Bouder, keep their pointe shoes on throughout men’s class, others find that trying out the big jumps and turns in flat shoes can ultimately benefit their pointework more. For Altman, the pointe-versus-flat decision “depends on my feet and what I have to do the rest of the day,” she says. “Today, I put on my flat shoes for the last two men’s combinations. I felt more grounded and had more of a connection to jump from. Tomorrow, when I put my pointe shoes back on, I’ll try to remember that feeling and incorporate it into my pointework.”
How do the men feel about ballerinas “invading”? “At first, they joked that I had to wear a dance belt to come in!” says Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian, who takes men’s class about once a month. “But now they don’t notice me.” Kharatian appreciates the “different energy” she feels when dancing with the men. “It’s very much about strength and about muscle,” she says, rather than the delicate intricacies of pointework.
For some ballerinas, men’s class is actually where they feel most at home. The bravura female dancer, for whom double tours and quadruple pirouettes have a special allure, is a relatively rare but highly visible figure. When Fernando Bujones staged La Bayadère for Mexico’s Ballet de Monterrey in 1997, he glimpsed a then-19- or 20-year-old Katia Garza following along in the back as some of the company’s men rehearsed the alpha-male Solor variation. A few days later, when Bujones came into rehearsal, some of the men egged Garza on: “Katia, show Fernando your variation.” She did, flawlessly: the double assemblé, the pirouettes à la seconde, even the barrel turns ending in a flourish on one knee. Bujones paused for a second. “Oh my God,” he said. “I’m glad I retired.”
Today, Garza continues to challenge herself in men’s classes and rehearsals at Orlando Ballet. When a guest choreographer asks for dancers with specialties or tricks, all eyes turn to her. Artistic Director Robert Hill says she can out-dance some of his company’s men. But there can be a downside to dancing with and like the boys, Garza cautions: She has to be very careful not to overdevelop her legs. “I have to work on a lot of stretching so my thighs don’t get too big, because I’m very muscular,” she says.
Still, Garza “loves the big jumps and tricks, because they’re so much fun.” This year, her tenth at Orlando Ballet, she’s determined to add a new men’s trick to her repertoire: the 540, a rivoltade resembling a martial arts jump that spins one and a half times in the air. “I’ve seen Carlos Acosta and other big stars make it look so easy,” she says. “This season, I want to learn it.”
Lisa Traiger writes on dance and performance for The Washington Post, among other publications.
The Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre keeps an eye on the past and the future.
In a company as small as The Washington Ballet, dancers don’t get lost in the corps. With just 20 members and two apprentices, artists perform frequently and get plenty of opportunities to dance solos and leading roles. They also work on new ballets with choreographers like Edwaard Liang and Karole Armitage.
Artistic Director Septime Webre expects company members to demonstrate a high level of responsibility for learning their roles, covering for others and being ready to step in and pick up the slack at a moment’s notice. “Because we’re small,” Webre says, “it’s important that we have fun and feel like we’re all in this together, contributing to the group, investigating through the group.”
In the decade since Webre, 47, took the helm of TWB, he’s brought a new, youthful energy to the company. “Artistically,” he says, “the company’s on the highest level it’s ever been.” Rough patches along the way, including a dancers’ strike in 2005, have been smoothed over. A collective-bargaining agreement resulted in improvements, providing a framework for better interaction between Webre and the dancers. He’s compared his relationship with his dancers to a marriage—sometimes a little rocky, but built on a firm foundation. “Going through that turmoil,” he says, “led everyone to become more invested in the group as a unit.”
Rehearsals, while still demanding, now frequently fill with laughter and friendly competition among the tight-knit company members, who spend their off-hours playing Rock Band together.
As Webre enters his second decade as director, he is leading TWB in an unorthodox direction: The troupe that made its mark under founder Mary Day by performing the sleek unitard-ballets of Choo-San Goh is now stepping wholeheartedly into the classical repertoire. Its 2009 production of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, ballet’s earliest expression of Romanticism, was not merely proficient; it was radiant. Next year will bring Le Corsaire—on the heels of this season’s Don Quixote. To fill out the casts, Webre uses the Studio Company, and has invited guest dancers and even top-level students from the company’s school. He knows that any ballet company worth its chops still needs to dance the classics. And in Washington, D.C., full-length ballets seem to attract an audience.
At the same time, Webre is unafraid of taking risks, continually seeking new challenges for his dancers. A multiyear project, tentatively titled “Made in Europe,” will bring in contemporary European masterworks from artists like Jirí Kylián and Nils Christie, while also introducing rising choreographers not yet seen on these shores. “I hope in the next five to seven years we’ll be the American ballet company with the most European choreographers in its repertoire,” he says.
And while Webre seeks new work from outside, he remains a choreographer at heart, typically creating a new ballet of his own each season. His most recent, The Great Gatsby, will be followed by a program called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” featuring ballets to music by Beck and The Rolling Stones.
When hiring dancers, Webre doesn’t demand a particular look or physique. “It makes the corps de ballet process a little challenging,” he laughs, “but I have an interest in individual dancers who are somewhat extreme, either extremely lyrical, extremely energetic, extremely athletic or someone who shows me a special personal quality.” Following an audition, he might invite a dancer to Washington to get a feel for the group dynamic before offering a contract, because in a chamber-sized group he
has no room for divas or slackers.
Webre works at cementing artistic relationships with his dancers. “There’s something very fulfilling about being able to mentor dancers and see them grow over time,” he acknowledges. “That long-term relationship allows me to make repertoire and casting choices that are designed to both reflect the growth of artists and to foster opportunities for growth.”