Dancer Spotlight: ABT by Way of Australia

Stephanie Williams, one of American Ballet Theatre’s newest corps members, loves to move. As she waltzes and balancés through a rehearsal of Giselle, she’s as involved dancing a peasant in the ensemble as she would be dancing Giselle herself. Williams brings considerable experience to her corps position. She danced with The Australian Ballet for four years before embarking on a wider quest in New York. With her lovely classicism, ample jump, sunny smile and quick learning skills, the 5' 5" dancer has every chance of success in her new company.

 Williams grew up in Newcastle, New South Wales, a mining town  north of Sydney, which she claims has produced (Billy Elliot–style) a surprising number of dancers. She trained at the Marie Walton-Mahon Dance Academy and, at age 11, when dancers from The Australian Ballet came to perform Don Quixote, she announced to her mother that she wanted to be a ballet dancer. “It was intriguing for me to realize you could make that your life,” she says. At 15, she entered The Australian Ballet School, where she studied with teachers like Marilyn Rowe, the school’s director, who helped Williams shape her goals. “Stephanie possesses physical beauty, purity of line, artistic depth, musicality and an understated and easy technique that sets her apart,” says Rowe. “She also has a wonderful work ethic and is an artist of great generosity.”

After graduation, Williams joined The Australian Ballet as a corps member. There she danced principal roles in ballets like Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Rehearsing with choreographer Wayne McGregor on Dyad 1929 proved a transformative experience. “It’s so mesmerizing the way he works,” she says. “You can see his brain telling his body how to move. His movements are unique, and so different that you have to be fearless to even attempt them. Working with him gave me such fulfillment.”

So why did she decide to leave? A promotion to coryphée in 2008 and a guesting gig with Morphoses in 2009 triggered an itch to take more professional chances. Williams says she felt herself getting stuck: “I needed to explore. I’m always best when I’m open to people, places and opportunities,” she explains. “I felt like my life was closing off and that scared me.”

She left Australia with zero planning and globe-hopped for six months. “I found a really good perspective on life,” she says. “I was getting to a point where I was feeling a little too consumed with getting to a certain status or a certain role.” She joined the Dutch National Ballet for six months, but  had long hoped to dance at ABT. One day she sent an email to inquire about taking company class. They said yes, she flew over and was hired this January.

During ABT’s spring season, she danced corps roles in a number of ballets, including Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions and Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream and new Firebird. Living in the city that never sleeps has been an easy adjustment for Williams, an insomniac. When not dancing, she runs, which calms her busy mind, or reads. Her colleagues in Australia miss her, but also respect her choices. “It was very difficult to see Stephanie leave, but she needed to stretch her wings and experience the world of dance on an international level,” says Rowe. “I hope that in time, she will return to her home country and company, where the journey began. She is, after all, a product of this wonderful land.”

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Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

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Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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