When New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder heard she’d be dancing Giselle, she was excited—and nervous. Bouder had already danced Aurora and Odette/Odile at NYCB, but the Romantic-era Giselle was a lifelong dream. “It had been one of my absolute favorites since I was a child,” she says. Opportunity knocked in 2008 when legendary prima Carla Fracci, then director of the Rome Opera Ballet, invited Bouder to dance the part in Italy. Bouder had watched American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle many times, and she’d also seen videos of several celebrated interpretations, Fracci’s included. But tackling the role herself required some more research.

 

Even the most iconic roles are not carved in stone. Ballet is a living art and, without stepping outside the bounds of the choreography and a particular production, most dancers legitimately strive to make a role their own. One way they accomplish this is by doing their homework, researching every aspect: the style, the music, the cultural history of the era. It could be paintings, decorative arts, books, lithographs, period movies—anything that stirs the imagination. You can’t dance a princess if you don’t grasp the concept of royalty. You can’t be Giselle unless you can enter the mind of an innocent country girl in medieval Europe. Bouder says growing up in rural Pennsylvania and being “kind of shy” helped her identify with Giselle. “You draw on personal experience where it helps.”

 

Ballerinas mostly come to a major role within the comfort zone of a home company. There will be directors, coaches and other dancers to guide them. Ballet mistress Karen P. Brown, who staged Kansas City Ballet’s production of the romantic classic, encouraged first-time Giselle Tempe Ostergren to study various Giselles on video as a way to see how different dancers approach the role. Brown says she tries to guide a dancer while still offering some leeway.

 

Bouder, by contrast, had to do a lot of prep work alone before her two weeks of intensive rehearsal one-on-one with Fracci. A friend lent Bouder British dance historian/critic Cyril Beaumont’s 1945 book, The Ballet Called Giselle. It’s a trove of information that Bouder admits she found almost overwhelming, but it helped her clarify her own approach. “It made me more decisive about what I really wanted to do, particularly about how I identified with the character’s innocence.”

 

Films of past interpreters can provide invaluable insight into a well-known part. Some clips, like those in Jacob’s Pillow’s new Dance Interactive, are available for free online (danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org). But keep in mind that Google can’t get you everywhere. For New York dancers, the invaluable dance division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has 22,700 films and videos, about half of which are of ballet, says assistant curator Charles Perrier—and very little of this precious footage can be found on YouTube. (That’s not to mention the rest of the dance division’s remarkable collection, which includes choreographic notes; dance biographies and histories; taped interviews with dancers and choreographers; and original costume and set designs.)

 

In fact, since all footage of Balanchine ballets is protected by the Balanchine Trust, when it comes to his works, the library is the best place to go. Unless, that is, you have access to one of the dancers who worked with Mr. B himself. San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten, who dances leads in such touchstone Balanchine works as Serenade, The Four Temperaments and Jewels, says listening to former NYCB stars—Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy and, of course, her own director, Helgi Tomasson—helps her achieve her objective of “trying to keep the ballets as honest to the choreographer’s intention as possible.” And with Balanchine, says Van Patten, the music is everything. “In approaching a new role of his, you need to listen to the music first, and know it inside out.”

 

Since narrative ballets are often built on literary foundations, going back to the story is a good starting point. Czech-born Jirí Jelinek, currently a principal with National Ballet of Canada, learned John Cranko’s Onegin as a member of Stuttgart Ballet, but had previously danced a version by Russian choreographer Vasily Medvedev in Prague. Both, like Tchaikovsky’s opera, are based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel. “The first thing I did was read the book,” says Jelinek. “It gave me a feeling of the character, that Onegin comes from a different, aristocratic world.”

 

When preparing to dance the female lead in another famous Cranko work, Romeo and Juliet, Miami City Ballet’s Jennifer Kronenberg also returned to the literary source, Shakespeare’s text. Kronenberg watched film interpretations of the play, too—Franco Zeffirelli’s from 1968 and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version—before continuing to videos of several different ballet adaptations. “It’s important to do that kind of research well in advance, if possible,” she advises. “It will help later with how you inflect the choreography.”

 

In the end, remember that research should inform but not dictate a performance. “Gather as much information as you can, yet avoid copying others,” Jelinek says. “Absorb everything—but let it help you find your own way with the character.”

Show Comments ()
Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh getting early practice as a leading man. Photo courtesy Connor Walsh

It's that time of year again—recital season! And not so long ago, some of your favorite ballet dancers were having their own recital experiences: dancing, discovering, bowing, laughing, receiving after-show flowers, making memories, and, of course, having their pictures taken! For this week's #TBT, we gathered recital photos—and the stories behind them—from five of our favorite dancers.

Gillian Murphy, American Ballet Theatre

Murphy gets ready for her role as "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Photo courtesy Gillian Murphy.

"This photo was taken by my mom when I was 11, waiting in the dressing room (the band room of West Florence High School in South Carolina) before I went onstage as 'Mary' for a recital piece featuring 3-year-olds as little lambs.I had so much fun being the teacher's assistant in the baby ballet class each week, particularly because my little sister Tessa [pictured below] was one of the 3-year-olds. I remember feeling quite grown up at the time because I was dancing in the older kids' recital piece later in the program, but in this moment I was just looking forward to leading my little lambs onstage in their number."
Keep reading... Show less
popular
Thinkstock.

From the latest launches to forever favorites, these stretch-canvas flats will (comfortably) keep you on your toes:


Bloch Inc. Infinity


Bloch combined the top features from two of their best-selling shoes to create this arch-enhancing slipper. An elastic top line (instead of draw- string) allows the shoe to mold to your foot, and a ridge-less outsole helps with balances and turns by giving the toes more room to spread out.


Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Photographed by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

This is Pointe's April/May 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

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."

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Photo by Jacob Bryant, Courtesy Random Acts

"When you turn up at someone's door saying, 'I would like to make the first dance in Antarctica,' they often call you crazy."

So says Kiwi choreographer and former ballet dancer Corey Baker. Luckily, his persistence paid off. On Sunday, April 22 (that's Earth Day, everybody), Baker, who now directs the U.K.–based Corey Baker Dance, is releasing his short film "Antarctica: The First Dance." Commissioned by Random Acts for Channel 4 and The Space (UK), the four-minute film stars Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Madeleine Graham—who performed in unimaginably frigid conditions to promote Baker's very important message. "I wanted to highlight Antarctica's epic landscape and vast beauty, but at the same time show that it is under threat," he says. "Climate change impact is real and immediate. By showing up-close the beauty of this incredible place, people can feel closer to something that may otherwise seem abstract and unconnected."

Keep reading... Show less
Because who doesn't want their feet to look as gorgeous as Sara's? (Photo by Christopher Lane)

Ah, the quest for the perfect, foot-flattering, technique-enhancing pointe shoe: It can feel like a never-ending saga. Still on the hunt for that ideal pair? Then you won't want to miss The School at Steps' annual Pointe Shoe Workshop and Fair, happening this Sunday, April 22nd, at 6:30 pm in NYC.

As always, the event—which is sponsored by Pointe—will feature an impressive panel of experts. This year's lineup includes orthopedist Dr. Andrew Price, professional fitter Mary Carpenter, master teacher Linda Gelinas, Pointe style editor Marissa DeSantis, and New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns (eee!).

Keep reading at dancespirit.com.

Ballet Stars
Photo Courtesy Elliott Arkin.

You can find Tiler Peck just about anywhere these days—onstage at New York City Ballet, in commercials, on "The Ellen Degeneres Show." And let's not forget starring in 2014's Little Dancer, a musical that followed the creation of Edgar Degas' famous sculpture, "Little Dancer Aged 14." Peck played Marie van Goethem, the young Paris Opéra Ballet School student who modeled for Degas. Now, she's reprising the role—er, her likeness is—for a good cause. Visual artist Elliott Arkin has created a series of limited edition sculptures of Peck as the Little Dancer. Proceeds will go to Dance Against Cancer, the annual benefit concert for the American Cancer Society produced by NYCB principal Daniel Ulbricht and Manhattan Youth Ballet programming director Erin Fogarty (both of whom lost a parent to the disease). Peck will also be part of the event's star-studded cast; all of the dancers donate their time, and most perform in memory of a loved one.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Michelle Thompson Ulerich. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Avant Chamber Ballet.

Founded in 2012, Dallas-based Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) has made a name for itself by presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon, George Balanchine and other major choreographers. Yet its Women's Choreography Project, now in its fourth year, makes ACB a company to watch in Texas and beyond. The Project's capstone is the annual choreography contest; the winner receives a stipend and the chance to set a new work on ACB's outstanding 18-member troupe. Nurturing the careers of women dancemakers is a central part of the company's mission. "As an independent choreographer, I found it almost impossible to get a professional commission," says ACB founder and artistic director Katie Cooper. "One of the reasons I started ACB was to make my own opportunities for creating new works."

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!