This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Aerys Merrill graduated from University of North Carolina School of the Arts with a BFA in ballet performance in 2018.
As a high school student, Aerys Merrill knew she wanted to dance professionally, but her parents wanted her to go to college. After hearing about the University of North Carolina School of the Arts from a friend, she decided to apply. Merrill soon found that the program was exactly what she needed: She could earn a degree and study a variety of academic subjects while continuing her rigorous ballet training. "It ended up being the best four years of my life in preparing me for a professional career," she says. "It's a time that I really cherished."
Aerys Merrill (front) in La Bayadère
Betsy Mann Photography, Courtesy Merrill<p><strong></strong><strong>The whole package: </strong>Merrill spent her mornings in classes like history and English before daily technique and pointe or variations. She then dove into dance electives, like music theory, business perspectives, anatomy and biology, before rehearsals. "We learned how to really listen to music, make resumés, go through contracts and understand the body, which is so important for dance."</p><p><strong>A shared effort: </strong>Collaborating with fellow UNCSA students for the annual <em>Nutcracker </em>was rewarding. "The design and production majors would do the sets and stage work, and the musicians played the music," says Merrill. "I remember thinking, Wow, this is so amazing that all of us students are coming together to put on this show!"</p><p><strong>Jumping across the pond:</strong> Postcollege, Merrill danced with Atlanta Ballet II and Ballet Memphis before joining England's Northern Ballet for its 2020–21 season. "I've known that I've wanted to dance professionally in Europe, even before college," she says. Merrill was invited to take company class in person after she sent Northern Ballet her performance footage. The director offered her a corps de ballet position on the spot.</p>
In November, the French dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes went public with accusations of institutional racism against Staatsballett Berlin, first reported by the German magazine Der Spiegel. In the article, several anonymous dancers confirm her account. Lopes Gomes, 29, who trained in Marseille and at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, danced for the Ballet de l'Opéra de Nice and Béjart Ballet Lausanne before joining Staatsballett Berlin as a corps de ballet member in 2018, under then co-directors Johannes Öhman and Sasha Waltz. After the company told her in October that her contract, which ends in July, would not be renewed, she shared her story with Pointe.
I didn't know I was the first Black female dancer at Staatsballett Berlin when I joined the company in 2018. I learned that from German journalists who came to interview me almost immediately. I grew up in a mixed-race family—my mother was French, my father from Cape Verde—and I was educated to believe that we all have the same opportunities.
Dean Barucija, Courtesy Lopes Gomes
Most people associate Las Vegas with "the Strip," where tourists enter a fantasy universe of blackjack, Cher shows and cocktails. But beyond the razzle-dazzle is a metropolitan area of more than 2 million with its own ballet company, Nevada Ballet Theatre. An ensemble of 25 dancers, NBT is now led by Roy Kaiser, former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet.
Company History<p>The company displayed a maverick streak from the beginning. NBT's forerunner, Nevada Dance Theatre, was founded in 1972 by Vassili Sulich, a Folies Bergère performer who assembled ballet dancers from the Strip into a small professional troupe. In 1997, co-founder and co-chair Nancy Houssels helped transition it into Nevada Ballet Theatre with a more classical focus.</p>
Nevada Ballet Theatre in Matthew Neenan's Until December
Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT<p>Kaiser took the reins in 2017 as its fourth director, although he never intended to head another company after spending his career dancing with PAB and then guiding it for 19 seasons. NBT won him over with its committed board, diligent dancers and a community hungry for dance. With its similar-sized ensemble and eclectic repertoire, he says that, in many ways, NBT reminds him of PAB when he joined it in 1979. Kaiser wants to expand the nonranked company to 30 and to increase performances.</p><p>The NBT Academy has 450 students, and NBT's education and outreach programs serve 20,000 children annually, mostly from the Las Vegas Valley's underserved areas.</p>
Repertoire<p>Kaiser is shaping a repertoire that builds on the artists' individual strengths to "make every dancer see they are really a valued member," he says. NBT performs full-lengths such as <em>Swan Lake</em>, Ben Stevenson's <em>Dracula</em> and Septime Webre's <em>Alice (in Wonderland)</em>. "I love the work of George Balanchine," says Kaiser, who welcomed Judith Fugate to stage <em>The Four Temperaments</em> prior to the pandemic. "That will always be a part of what we do here."</p><p>Kaiser wants to grow the audience through works that resonate with newcomers, such as Nicolo Fonte's <em>Bolero</em>. He also believes in the importance of new work fortifying NBT's identity, through choreographers such as Fonte and Matthew Neenan, and by giving company dancers, like Krista Baker, a chance to hone their choreographic craft on the main stage.</p>
Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers in a promotional image for its popular Choreographers' Showcase
Jerry Metellus, Courtesy NBT
Cirque du Ballet<p>For 12 years, NBT has collaborated with Cirque du Soleil for A Choreographers' Showcase, which joins performers from NBT and local Cirque shows to choreograph with and on each other. "It's like nothing else I've ever experienced," says Kaiser. The process results in a 90-minute show of 10 to 12 new works at Treasure Island's Mystère Theatre. It features a 10,000-square-foot stage with a rubber surface for buoyant tumbling, a revolving floor and four lifts.</p><p>"You actually get to work with acrobats, synchronized swimmers, contortionists, hip-hop dancers and breakers," says Baker. "It's really cool to be able to trade skills." Kaiser hopes to expand some of the works and adapt them to the ballet stage.</p>
Studio Life<p>Kaiser teaches company class twice a week, including Zoom classes during the pandemic. "In a smaller company, it's all-hands-on-deck," he says, noting that dancers regularly have three roles in a performance. "I value professionalism and push the young dancers that will push themselves."</p><p>Casting decisions are based on what he needs rather than simply on seniority. Case in point: Following a year's apprenticeship, Michael Caye joined the company in 2019 and has danced soloist and principal roles on every program since. "If you're just out of school and you don't necessarily want to do corps work all the time and want to get more opportunities, come here," says Caye.</p><p>Baker, a 15-year veteran of NBT, agrees, saying that Kaiser's "door has always been open. He is absolutely the most open director I have worked for."</p>
Nevada Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte's Bolero
Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT