Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.
Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.
Dolan as Gamzatti in Pensylvania Ballet's La Bayadère
Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy PAB
An Unconventional Education
Dolan began dancing at age 3 at Burke Civic Ballet in Northern Virginia. A few years later her family moved to Cary, North Carolina, where she picked up her training more earnestly at International Ballet Academy. There she met teacher Miguel Campaneria, who would eventually become her sole coach and mentor. "As soon as I saw her dance for the first time, I knew she was special," says Campaneria. "She had a light about her."
At 12, after a fallout between Campaneria and IBA was magnified by a subsequent noncompete contract, Dolan had to choose between a traditional conservatory dance education and a somewhat nomadic training experience with her beloved teacher. "I chose to go with Miguel," says Dolan. "I trusted him. He could see things in me that other teachers couldn't."
The next two years proved challenging. In order to abide by the noncompete, Dolan had to travel 25 miles to take class from Campaneria in rented studio space. Though 10 others initially joined their venture, the setup proved difficult for many of them, and by the end it was just Dolan, Campaneria and one other student. The training schedule also required her to transition to online schooling.
"We had a two-hour-long class in the morning, followed by solo rehearsal, and then we'd return at night to do the same thing over again," says Dolan.
She had few performance opportunities, so they focused on competitions. "Those two-minute variations at three competitions per year were really the only stage experience I had," says Dolan. What's more, this unusual training structure strained her family's time and finances. "It was a sacrifice for my family that I'm not sure many would make."
On the other hand, Dolan says, "I learned independence. If I didn't have that intensive one-on-one time, I don't think I would have progressed the way that I did." Once the two-year noncompete contract was up, Dolan's parents helped her teacher open the Campaneria Ballet School in Cary, where Dolan spent her next year of formal training, and met her eventual boyfriend, Austin Eyler.
"I know I can't skip out on those extra 10 minutes of practice just because I made it in a magazine," says Sydney Dolan
An Unexpected Career Start
In the summer of 2016, Dolan and Eyler attended Pennsylvania Ballet's Company Experience week, an intensive taught by artistic director Angel Corella. After the first day, Corella pulled them into his office and offered them trainee positions, with the promise of a second company contract by that January. "I was struck by her technique," Corella says. "She has beautiful lines, she has excellent turns, she is very professional. I knew I wanted her in the company."
Then Corella asked for their ages—he thought Dolan, then 15, was older. Though her age presented hurdles—in terms of finishing her education, finding proper housing, and complying with child employment laws—Corella decided she was worth it. Dolan herself was less sure. She had made great progress with Campaneria and didn't know how her parents would feel. Then, one week before PAB's season started, Corella let Dolan know that two second company contracts were immediately available for her and Eyler—allowing them to bypass the trainee level entirely.
Campaneria was concerned. "I have seen dancers get everything at a young age, and it's too much too soon," he says. But, Dolan says, "I just felt strongly it was the right choice." Following her gut instinct, she accepted.
Dolan as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker
Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy PAB
Second Company Life
Dolan's first company rehearsal with PBII was for Nutcracker, and it was like drinking water through a fire hose. Outside of a few videos, it was her first time seeing George Balanchine's choreography, let alone dancing it. "I had to pick my jaw up off the floor," Dolan says. "It was the most basic choreography, but I couldn't stop bumping into people." Suddenly, she was going from one-on-one coaching to dancing in the corps every day. "I lacked experience working with other people. It took a while to get used to."
Throughout the year she developed crucial skills for corps work, such as communicating constructively and developing spatial awareness. "I learned what it was like to be in a company rehearsal and proper etiquette," Dolan says. She also got the stage experience she'd lacked. "We were in every main company performance," she says.
She struggled to fit in, however, and often felt the need to earn the respect of her fellow dancers. She was a sophomore in high school, taking online classes and living with relatives in the area, while her PBII colleagues were over 18. "In the back of my head there has always been a voice asking me if I deserve to be where I am at this age."
Rising Through the Ranks
In 2017, one year after joining PBII, Dolan became an apprentice. Corella, noting her nerves of steel, started pushing her instantly. By the time she finished the season, she'd performed Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Dewdrop in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, the pas de trois in Swan Lake and the soloist in Balanchine's "Rubies." She joined the corps de ballet in 2018, rising to demi-soloist for the 2019–20 season. Then in October, after her debut as a Flower Girl in Don Quixote, Corella promoted her to soloist. "Her dancing in Don Quixote was something we had never seen before—I had to promote her," Corella says.
Despite her success, Dolan admits to having her fair share of insecurities. One, her turnout, stems from a comment she overheard about herself at a competition years ago. "To this day I work tirelessly on it." Yet she doesn't let those anxieties keep her down for long. "I try to tell myself that there isn't a single dancer out there who isn't insecure about something."
"It's clear to everyone in the company that she is where she is because of her technique, artistry and commitment to the company," says Corella. "If anything, she can take it easy sometimes."
Dolan with Sterling Baca in La Bayadère
Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy PAB
Outside of ballet, Dolan is a self-proclaimed homebody who loves knitting and reading. She developed a love of cooking from her father, a chef. "For me, it's all or nothing," she says. "If I cook, I have to make something extravagant." She also enjoys writing, a passion she says she inherited from her mother, and keeps up with a blog (balletprose.com) she started when she was 16.
Eyler also plays a starring role in her story. After meeting at ballet school, a friendship blossomed. "Over time our connection grew and we started dating," Dolan says of the corps dancer; they now live together. "We're such bunheads—if I'm struggling with something, he has an eye that I trust." Beyond dancing, the two love to explore Philadelphia's restaurant scene.
As for Dolan's future at PAB, Corella doesn't beat around the bush. "I, of course, hope she will be a principal dancer. She is very special, and it would be hard not to acknowledge that."
Dolan tries to stay grounded: "I know I can't skip out on those extra 10 minutes of practice just because I made it in a magazine," she says. "I don't want to stay stagnant." Still, the accomplishments come with pressure. "But it's good pressure. Constructive pressure."