Ballet Stars
"There is a palpable sense of hope for the future." Photo by Devin Alberda via Instagram

New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.

When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?

The dancers currently have little information about the search process and plans to move forward. But Mr. Martins' absence has certainly been felt around the theater.

I've noticed it the most during dress rehearsals, particularly for Balanchine ballets. Although he rarely attended daily rehearsals, he always supervised the final rehearsals before the ballets went before the audience. Frequently, he had a nugget of wisdom to share, often from the mouth of Balanchine himself, to help us fix a tricky partnering maneuver, or a difficult sequence of turns.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Everything Nutcracker
Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

My first year at New York City Ballet, I was brought onboard three days before the "Nutcracker" season opened to replace injured dancers in the “Snow" scene, “Hot Chocolate" and the “Waltz of the Flowers." Even though I suddenly had 48 performances ahead, I had grown up dancing George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker," so I thought I could happily revel in my first moments as an NYCB apprentice without worry.

My first onstage rehearsal for the “Snow" scene, in costume, with the snow falling, brought me back down to earth. The stages I had grown up on paled in comparison to the David H. Koch Theater, and I lacked the extra stamina required for covering large stages. By the end, I felt like a sloppy, ugly dancer. How would I be able to perform “Snow" and “Flowers" eight shows a week if one rehearsal completely exhausted me?

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Ballet Careers

When I finished high school, I didn’t have any aspirations to go to college. After all, I had already been a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet for six months; I certainly hadn’t needed a degree to enter the workforce. I didn’t have to go to college—I was a ballerina!

 

Fast-forward a few years, when I came to the startling realization that my career as a performer would not last forever. After a serious foot injury forced me offstage for a year and a half, I began assessing my interests outside dance and was disconcerted to discover I had countless gaps to fill. I didn’t have any hobbies unrelated to physical activity. When forced to sit still, I didn’t know how to occupy my time.

 

Still, the years kept passing and I kept saying, “Someday.” Then my brother, NYCB principal Jonathan, enrolled at Fordham College at Lincoln Center to study business—and the little sister in me felt those pangs of sibling rivalry. I couldn’t let my big brother beat me at something!

 

What’s more, I knew that I’d be covered by the scholarship program available to dancers at NYCB. Bari Lipp is the founding director of a fund called Dance On, which helps cover college tuition costs. (There are many similar programs and grants out there for dancers at other companies to take advantage of.)

 

Now I’m taking classes at Fordham College’s campus in Westchester, NY, where I live with my husband. In contrast to the Lincoln Center campus, where many dancers take courses, in Westchester I don’t feel like just another dancer: I’m an adult pursuing a degree. My first course was European History, which I completed this spring; now I’m tackling a theology class.

 

Attending college has given me an entirely different focus, and my dancing has been affected in unexpected, gratifying ways. Ironically, shifting my focus away from ballet has allowed me to change and grow as a dancer. I’m no longer obsessing unhealthily about my technique and performances, but happily engaging my mind elsewhere.

 

Finding the nerve to try new things academically has helped my confidence onstage, too. I want to be more than just a ballet dancer; I want to be a mature artist and person, and I know that to do that I need to step outside my comfort zone. The unfamiliar challenges of college have given me the courage to take more risks in ballet. After discovering that I could succeed academically, I was able to believe that my instincts and choices as a dancer might also be valuable. I’m experimenting with my ideas in the classroom—and with my artistry in front of thousands of people.

 

On the flip side, it’s sometimes difficult giving up my downtime to attend classes. I want to complete my studies in the classroom, where I feel I learn better than I would online—but that requires sacrificing my day off. Now Mondays are spent scrambling to finish up projects or papers. It’s a different kind of work, too. Grasping spiritual theories in Faith and Critical Reason, my theology course, is a far cry from learning ballets.

 

But I know it’s worth it. I’m now eager to learn about many different fields of study to find what fits me best. Writing, law and real estate all pique my interest. Whatever I ultimately choose, I know that my college experience has changed me as a dancer and a person. Anxiety about my future has turned into excitement: I know my life after my performance career can be shaped any way I want.

Ballet Stars

I always dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when I was young, those dreams were far from modest: Not only would I be a ballerina, but I decided I would be the greatest ballerina. I would be world-famous, dance on the biggest stages and partner with the best male dancers. Looking back, my optimism and naiveté seem almost endearing. While these big dreams planted a solid determination inside of me, my journey towards the top in the competitive ballet world was far more difficult than I’d envisioned.

 

As a young student, my ambitions were fairly tame. I envied the girls who could do more pirouettes than I could and those who moved up a level. But as I continued training as a teenager at the School of American Ballet, my competitiveness grew. We were all there with the same goal—to become apprentices with New York City Ballet. But only a few of us would make it. My worries over who could do the most turns turned into bigger anxieties: Who gets the most attention in class? Why is she getting better parts than me? How does she do that step so well? Who is getting interest from companies?

 

Looking back, competing with my classmates gave me the extra drive to push myself. I worked hard in every class and took everything seriously. After a year and a half, it paid off—I was offered an NYCB?apprenticeship. I was thrilled to dive headfirst into the professional dance world as a member of one of the leading ballet companies.

 

Yet my first years with NYCB were very tough. I took every casting decision personally, convincing myself that someone else got a role because I wasn’t working hard enough or I had been eating too many cookies. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. I was sure the audience preferred other dancers, positive I got the least applause.

 

Determined to prove that I was the best dancer, I decided I had to be better than everyone. I particularly remember one winter when I was one of many girls cast as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. I wanted to perform the role flawlessly, but I kept struggling with a difficult set of turns. I was relentless, practicing them over and over. Then I started to obsess over how well the other dancers did the same steps.

 

My plan backfired. I’d put too much pressure on myself, and my inability to reach perfection morphed into stage fright. I didn’t trust my body to know what to do, or even if I had the strength I needed. Before shows, I pictured everything that could go wrong. I pictured the audience hating me. I pictured them wanting to see other dancers instead of me. What a horrible way to perform! My dancing, in turn, suffered. In trying to outdo everyone, I smothered my growth. I wasn’t able to simply dance. I couldn’t let go and be in the moment. 

 

Ten years of performing regularly has since given me many valuable insights. First, we are all here because we love to dance. Each of us strives for a perfection that will always be just beyond our grasp. We worry about our bodies. We analyze every ache and pain. We are insecure, yet we must maintain a certain level of confidence to be able to perform for thousands of people. We all want to dance as much as possible, yet we have to understand that we can’t dance everything.

 

It’s still a learning process. Lately, I’ve been working to accept my dancing and its flaws, and to use my time onstage to reward myself. In performance, I try to let myself simply enjoy the benefits of many hours of hard work. I’m able to grasp the concept that I may not be right for every role, but I have my own strengths to bring to the stage.    

 

Now I am working on learning from my colleagues instead of comparing myself to them. I love watching Wendy Whelan and Jenifer Ringer, two of NYCB’s most experienced principals, because their artistry comes from such an honest place. They don’t try to dance like anybody else or please anyone. They are comfortable with their own dancing. I constantly gain inspiration and steal things I like from their performances, but I also have to remind myself that even they have their own strengths and weaknesses.

 

I love being onstage again. I love the exhilaration of a great performance. I’ve learned that my fiercest competitor and harshest critic is the one in the mirror. That’s who must be satisfied. That’s who must be happy.

Abi Stafford is a principal at New York City Ballet.

Ballet Careers
Abi Stafford in Bournonville's Flower Festival in Ganzano. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford recently performed in Cuba as part of the Havana International Dance Festival. Read her follow-up post here.

DAY 1

Seven of my NYCB colleagues and I are heading to Havana, Cuba for the Festival, joining other prestigious companies, including American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet. It's truly a star-studded event! NYCB principals Jared and Tyler Angle are our bosses: They conceived the program, put together the group of dancers and are in charge of making all the last-minute decisions.

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 What an exciting trip this was! Overall, I was extremely impressed with the kindness and enthusiasm of the Cuban ballet fans. Dance is a huge deal in Havana--there are pictures of Alicia Alonso everywhere. Many people saw our first performance and insisted on coming back for the second one. They waited for us outside the stage door and took pictures and asked for autographs. They tried hard to communicate to us in broken English how much they enjoyed the program. I met some people in the hotel who had traveled from Argentina specifically to see the dance festival. Even the workers at our hotel went to our show!


In between our two shows, we had some time to play. We enjoyed a morning at the beach and wandered around old Havana, which is full of shops and restaurants. For our final evening, we bought tickets for a dance show called Tropicana. It was two solid hours of Cuban-style dance, with singing, live music, and even some acrobatics. I thought it was spectacular! 


What a thrill and an honor to be a part of this trip. Jared [Angle], Tyler [Angle] and Marc Happel, who is head of the NYCB costume shop, made it all possible--special thanks to them. Hopefully, lines of communication throughout the dance community will remain open and we will be able to participate in the dance festival again!

 

New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford recently performed in Cuba as part of the Havana International Dance Festival. Read her first guest post here.

Last week, Tom Gold Dance performed at the Cuban International Ballet Festival. The NYC-based pickup troupe includes a number of top New York City Ballet dancers, including Abi Stafford, who writes about the trip here.

 

Sunday, October 28
This evening we flew to Havana to perform Apollo, Twyla Tharp's Junk Duet, and Tom Gold's Gershwin Preludes and Tango Fantasy with Tom Gold Dance in the 23rd International Ballet Festival. Five of us dancers traveled today along with Tom and Willy Burmann, a tremendous teacher at Steps on Broadway. Tom brings Willy along when TGD tours to teach warm-ups, coach the dancers, and to generally be a supportive presence. Four more dancers are scheduled to arrive Tuesday morning—we they won’t be stranded by Hurricane Sandy. Tonight we went to a party thrown for all the dancers in the festival. Alicia Alonso was there, and when Tom was introduced to her, she said “Bellas artes.” We called it a night at about 12:30. Time to rest. My lower back is a bit stiff from flying and I'm eager to get dancing and moving.


Monday, October 29
This morning we took taxis to Old Havana and spent the morning walking around the old buildings and shops. I was thrilled to see NY-style bookstands on the street with English copies of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; on Friday we're going to visit the house where he lived for 20 years. While driving along the sea wall, waves were splashing over onto the street. Remnants of Sandy, I'd imagine. Before Willy's 3 pm class at the school for the National Ballet of Cuba, Tom came up with a Plan B should one of the dancers not make it because of closed airports. (Simone Messmer, who dances with ABT, is in Spain at the moment and must fly through NYC.) I donned my ballet mistress cap and taught Simone's part in Gershwin to Gretchen Smith, with help from her partner Stephen Hanna. The ballet is a charming pas de deux, with brilliant footwork, sassy movements and slow, luxurious adagio steps. It's one of my favorite pas de deuxs to dance. Tom simultaneously taught Amanda Hankes three new sections in Tango. She already has her own role in the ballet, but can dance Simone’s parts on top of hers. Gretchen and Amanda were pros, or course. I can’t believe how fast they learned everything. Amanda had videotaped Tango off her computer at home by holding her IPhone up to the screen in case anyone needed to see it; lucky for her! After rehearsal, we got word that Simone officially could not find a way to Cuba. Happily, everyone was already two steps ahead!


Tuesday, October 30
Uh-oh. Some dancers are having some terrible stomach issues. Amanda spent much of rehearsal bent over and Tom felt feverish. Perhaps it was the ice from our mojitios last night? The three other dancers from our group made it this morning. We had studio space again and put together Tango, (which involves all the dancers) and Apollo before running out of time. Robbie Fairchild and I haven’t rehearsed Junk Duet for a couple weeks now. The only worry is whether my stamina will be up to par. Junk Duet is quite hard, but it’s difficult in a way that makes me feel excited for the challenge. The choreography for the female has many, many pirouettes so I like to think that if I mess up one, I get to try again on the next…and then there’s another one…and so on and so forth. I can’t believe the first show is tomorrow! At dinner tonight I filled up on papaya and pineapple—someone said they are good for inflammation. But I’m craving apples. And my daily Dunkin’ Donuts.     


Wednesday, October 31
Uh-oh again. Stephen came to breakfast and said he was sick all last night. But he pushed through. Tonight was our first performance and this morning was our first time on the stage of the beautiful Mella Theater. Today was a dance marathon: We began with class at 10 and rehearsed until close to 2:30. Rehearsal was hard so we popped Advil and B 12 vitamins (for energy) before the show. The stool for Apollo has two legs that are a bit unstable; it would be quite embarrassing for Adrian Danchig-Waring if the stool fell out from underneath him. That didn’t happen, but I did trip while bourreeing out for Apollo. I thought “Well, that was a good start, Abi!” But the rest of the ballet went quite well. Next on the program was Gershwin, followed by Junk. For Junk, the taped music must begins when Robbie and I start moving. One of the first steps is a flip over backwards for the girl, essentially like a cartwheel, but the guy does all the work. We started dancing, the music didn’t start…the music didn’t start…then the first chords of Gershwin played. There was a moment of panic before Robbie whispered to me, “Let’s go back to the beginning.” The right music started before we got back to our places and Robbie and I weren’t quite on the same page. He managed to flip me over again without any help from me because I was trying to move on to the next step. It got my adrenaline pumping, to say the least! After a few chaotic moments, we picked up the choreography, but afterwards Tom said that it actually looked fine because we both kept moving. Gotta roll with those punches! By the end of Tango, we all were beat. Adrian was so tired that he said he was seeing stars. It was all worth it, though. The audience was lovely, amazing and enthusiastic. They went wild for Tango. There is a particularly exciting “boys dance” for Adrian, Robbie and Stephen. The applause was so extended afterwards that we could barely hear the music to begin the finale. At the very end, the audience treated us to a standing ovation. Several of the stagehands asked us girls for single roses from the bouquets that we received during bows. We decided flowers must be a bit expensive here and were happy to comply. When leaving the theater, a woman recognized Adrian and said, “Apollo! Apollo!” Mind you, in Spanish the “double LL” is pronounced “yo.” So, she was saying, “Apo-yo.” And the Spanish word “pollo” (or po-yo) means chicken, so we decided that Adrian must have reminded her of a chicken!  Afterwards we ate dinner while donning Halloween masks. Might as well bring a bit of Halloween to Cuba!


Thursday, November 1
I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. I have many sore muscles in strangest of places. Amanda and I have sore quads from Apollo and Adrian said that his calves won’t stop cramping. We got some great compliments from people who saw the show last night while eating breakfast in the hotel.  We repeated our show this evening but I felt that my performance was not quite as good as last night. Willy, however, informed us that it looked better. He said that the energy was higher which might have happened because we were more tired and had to push harder. He said, “You all looked wonderful” and when we answered with, “It didn’t feel as good,” he said, “Now, I didn’t ask you how it felt. I’m telling you how it looked!” An important distinction, I’m sure. After our performance, we headed to the National Theater to watch the National Ballet of Cuba perform. The program had a handful of pas de deuxs, followed by an opera by Handel. My favorite pas de deux was by Eduardo Blanco. The girl’s name was Yanela, I believe. She was clean, graceful and beautiful to watch. Alicia Alonso choreographed a new ballet which was a lovely pas de deux set in a studio (the set consisted of two ballet barres and a mirror) with a trio of musicians onstage. It reminded me a bit of Afternoon of a Faun. We were thrilled. Tomorrow we are visiting the Hemingway House and spending the rest of the day at the beach. Then home to New York on Saturday. I can’t believe how fast this trip went—and I can’t wait to come back!

Successful ballet dancers all share one trait: a relentless determination to improve. To close out 2012, Pointe reached out to dancers we covered this past year to find out their resolutions for the next one.

 

Name: Abi Stafford

Company: New York City Ballet

Rank: Principal

 

Resolutions:  “This year, I resolve to do more yoga, watch less reality TV (like 'Dance Moms') and read more books.”

 

More Abi: Read Abi's diary from Cuba, plus her personal account of dealing with competition in ballet.

 

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