In a recent editorial in The New York Times, dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote that “the lesson of history is that ballerinadom has been continually redefined.” I believe it is time for a new definition, one that does not hold up Old World glamour or a dancer’s nationality as criteria. The greatest female dancers today are bringing their own vitality and originality from all over the world to the universal language of ballet.

To be clear, every balletomane and professional dancer has his or her own concept of the ideal ballerina. For some, it’s about clarity of form and the seamless execution of choreography. For others, it’s about dramatic range or stylistic versatility. To some degree, these attributes are prerequisites. Yet the most fundamental characteristic of my ideal ballerina is someone whose depth of character and generosity of spirit makes her a leader not only in her performances but in class and in the rehearsal process.

Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom once wrote that one of the most remarkable things about the character of Juliet is that she exudes both exceptional virtue and an exceptionally sparkling personality. To me, this rare balance is also the aim of a ballerina.

In real life these are difficult ideals to live up to, but I have many colleagues who are a daily inspiration. At American Ballet Theatre, I am continually struck by Stella Abrera’s unwavering discipline, integrity and intelligence in both art and life. Her versatility as a dancer and actress is complemented by her graciousness onstage and to her colleagues. Similarly, New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan is a goddess onstage, but down-to-earth in real life. Neither fit the outdated stereotype of the self-centered diva ballerina. They are compassionate, focused and sensitive people and artists who maintain both their sense of humor and their consummate professionalism day in and day out.

At the Royal New Zealand Ballet, where I am a principal guest artist, I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star. This emerging ballerina, Lucy Green, has the physical attributes to do great things with her art: a brilliant jump, coordination and musicality to spare. However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.

Ultimately, I most admire these dancers, as well as others, for how they encourage greatness in everyone around them. It may be a somewhat naïve and romantic notion, but I believe that a ballerina must nurture positive qualities and an openness of mind within herself so that she can share her inner life in a genuine way on the stage. In order to communicate the truth and the universality of human experience, the ballerina must gain perspective and dimension from both her own life experience and her intense respect and dedication to the craft of ballet. She must go beyond the steps and strive to bring humanity and humility purely and truly to every moment of expression. That, to me, is artistry that is meaningful both on and off the stage.

Gillian Murphy is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.

Summer Intensive Survival
Getty Images

There's a sweet spot toward the end of August—after summer intensives have wrapped up and before it's time to head back to school or work—where the days are long, lazy and begging to be spent neck-deep in a pile of good books. Whether you're looking for inspiration for the upcoming season or trying to brush up on your dance history, you can never go wrong with an excellent book on ballet. We've gathered eight titles (all available at common booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble) guaranteed to give you a deeper understanding of the art form, to add to your end-of-summer reading list.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
James Yoichi Moore and Noelani Pantastico warm up onstage. Angela Sterling, Courtesy SDC.

On a sunny July weekend, hundreds of Seattle-area dance fans converged on tiny Vashon Island, a bucolic enclave in Puget Sound about 20 miles from the city. They made the ferry trek to attend the debut performance of the fledgling Seattle Dance Collective.

SDC is not a run-of-the-mill contemporary dance company; it's the brainchild of two of Pacific Northwest Ballet's most respected principal dancers: James Yoichi Moore and Noelani Pantastico. The duo wanted to create a nimble organization to feature dancers and choreographers they felt needed more exposure in the Pacific Northwest.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Roman Mejia in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

The Princess Grace Foundation has just announced its 2019 class, and we're thrilled that two ballet dancers—New York City Ballet's Roman Mejia and BalletX's Stanley Glover—are included among the list of über-talented actors, filmmakers, playwrights, dancers and choreographers.

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
The Royal Ballet's Alexander Campbell and Yasmine Naghdi in Ashton's The Two Pigeons. Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.

While most ballet casts are 100 percent human, it's not unheard of for live animals to appear onstage, providing everything from stage dressing to supporting roles. Michael Messerer's production of Don Quixote features a horse and a donkey; American Ballet Theatre's Giselle calls for two Russian wolfhounds; and Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee requires a white Shetland pony. Another Ashton masterpiece, The Two Pigeons, is well known for its animal actors. But though ballet is a highly disciplined, carefully choreographed art form, some performers are naturally more prone to flights of fancy—because they're birds.

Keep reading... Show less