The members of ABT Studio Company straddle two worlds: student and professional. On a March afternoon, as the dancers rehearse for a work choreographed by ABT dancer Gemma Bond, they appear more the former: Clean academic leotards and tights reveal coltish legs. But as soon as they launch into the piece (which later had its New York City debut at The Joyce Theater), it's evident how close these dancers are to a professional rank. Their movements and expressiveness grow bolder with each entrance. Soon they're sliding to the ground in floorwork and swirling confidently in daring lifts. "This group is particularly brilliant to work with," says Bond. "Each dancer seems to have something interesting in the way that they move, which made the creation process a little more of a collaboration than some of my other works."
If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a member of American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company, you're in luck. The latest episode of "No Days Off," a documentary web series profiling young and inspiring athletes, spotlights 17-year-old Joseph Markey, a first-year Studio Company member. The doc not only underscores the physical aspects of Markey's training, but also the artistic refinements he must make on his road to becoming a professional dancer.
17-Year-Old Is The FUTURE of Dance www.youtube.com
If your goal is to become a professional dancer, you likely have a lot of questions about what you need to do to get there. Last year, Youth America Grand Prix created a Facebook video series called "Ask the Expert," featuring conversations with dance professionals on topics ranging from nutrition to dancing in college to career building. (Good news: They are now available on YAGP's website and YouTube page).
This season, YAGP is expanding the series to include more interviews. The latest video features American Ballet Theatre Studio Company artistic director Sascha Radetsky. The topic? Navigating your first year of professional life, from a director's perspective. Radetsky answers questions about professional etiquette and protocol, navigating company hierarchy and managing conflicts, and offers his tips for a successful career and what qualities stand out to him in dancers.
There aren't many dancers who've had as varied a post-stage career as Sascha Radetsky. Since retiring in 2014, the former American Ballet Theatre soloist and Center Stage star has reprised his role as Charlie in Center Stage: On Pointe; acted in two television programs (Starz network's Flesh and Bone and Hallmark Channel's A Nutcracker Christmas) and choreographed Misty Copeland's famous Under Armour commercial. He's also written articles for Vogue, Playbill and Dance Magazine, and he currently directs the ABT/NYU Master's in Ballet Pedagogy program. Now he has a new title to add to his credentials: artistic director of ABT Studio Company.
In 2016, choreographer Jeremy McQueen founded the Black Iris Project with the aim of bringing together predominantly minority dancers each summer to create works that celebrate diversity and black history. This year, he's mixing it up. In honor of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday on July 18, McQueen created 100 FISTS in collaboration with photographer Melika Dez. Each day, for the hundred days leading up to Mandela's birthday, BIP has released a photo on social media of a black dancer in a New York City location, posed with their hand in a fist. Each photo is paired with an inspirational quote by Mandela. Pointe caught up with McQueen to find out how this project came together and what's next for the fledgling collective.
If you're missing Teen Vogue's "Strictly Ballet" web series, and the behind-the-scenes access it offered, you'll love the new video they released last week—this time peeking into a rehearsal of the ABT Studio Company.
The promising young dancers performed at the Joyce Theater last weekend, and in the video, they're preparing for the New York premiere of Murmuration, by British choreographer George Williamson. (Some have since been promoted into the company.) We get a sense of their determination, focus and artistry as they work through difficult phrases and absorb his directions. And Williamson talks about his artistic process and his experience working with the dancers. “You give them the material, but you can’t tell them how to take every step," he says at one point. "I think that’s part of learning to be a mature dancer.”
The video also captures the smaller moments and details that make the rehearsal process beautiful, like a younger student standing in the doorway to watch, or a pointe shoe-clad foot slowly turning in a circle on the studio floor. Check it out below:
When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented," says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best."
There's nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it's easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls," says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work."
On a rainy October morning, Boston Ballet's Dusty Button sails through a pas de cinq rehearsal for Swan Lake. The variation is long and thankless, full of uncomfortable jump sequences and tricky transitions from pirouettes, yet Button, newly minted as a principal dancer, glides through it sunnily in a trial pair of Bloch pointe shoes. Unusually, she is not winded and is able to joke with assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser as he gives her notes.
“I think I just did a four-step soutenu," she laughs good-naturedly, hands on her hips. “Well, you are always overachieving, Dusty," teases Kaiser, giving voice to what could be the understatement of Button's last few years with the company.
Two catchphrases screen-printed onto the coverups of Button's dancewear line, Ribbon&Rosin, say it all: “Work until your idols become your rivals" and “Remember why you started." At 25, she appears to be following her own advice. After dancing at Birmingham Royal Ballet, Button was hired into Boston's corps in 2012, where she was promoted to soloist and then principal within two years. But her path to the top has been anything but traditional, and shows a keen entrepreneurial instinct that leverages growing up as a competition kid. In addition to designing her clothing line, she is a budding choreographer who teaches at dance conventions on the weekends. Her Instagram feed, at last count boasting 46,400 followers, and her brand-new website, worldofdusty.com, make it clear that she has a vision for branding herself that is more like a young Hollywood starlet than a ballet dancer. From the competition circuit to The Royal Ballet School, Button has grown from a precocious, talented student into a strategic artist and businesswoman.
Dusty Button and Bradley Schlagheck. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
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In her senior year of high school, Michelle Thompson, a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, went on “tons of auditions,” but soon found she needed to widen her search; after only one girl was chosen from her class of 25 to join SFB, Thompson decided to attend Ballet Austin’s summer intensive program. By summer’s end, she was one of six girls selected to join Ballet Austin II.
Now 23, Thompson is in her fourth season with Ballet Austin, and credits her second company experience with building confidence and providing training in contemporary partnering. “Coming from San Francisco Ballet, I had a lot going for me, but Ballet Austin II helped me develop,” she says. “It was a bridge for me.”
Stories like Thompson’s have become more common as the number of second companies has grown. While the reasons for this trend may vary, artistic directors usually cite the growing number of dancers needing jobs and the availability of funding to support supervisory positions. Maintaining a second company is also efficient; with a supply of homegrown dancers available to swell the ranks during big productions, main companies can be smaller. Second companies are also often vital in executing public education programs that boost community presence and may even generate income.
For the most part, artistic directors and dancers laud the merits of second companies, including extensive performing and technical fine-tuning for young dancers learning the ins and outs of company life. But they also acknowledge the drawbacks: low pay—or no pay—and the distinct possibility that a company job won’t follow a second company gig. “Obviously,” Thompson points out, “they can’t tell you at the beginning of the year if they will have a spot for you.”
Second companies are nothing new. Formed in 1968, Joffrey II (now defunct) was the first to open in the U.S., followed six years later by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II. The last 10 years, however, have seen a rise in second companies, and now most large- and medium-sized companies in the U.S. have them (see page 88 for a listing of second companies).
The structure of each second company varies. BAII members are considered apprentices to the main company, while Pennsylvania Ballet II members are not—although both supplement the main company’s performances and tour independently. Ailey II’s 12 dancers, who will perform in more than 45 cities this season, no longer join first company productions, and the second company has four unpaid apprentices of its own. And members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company—whose focus is training over outreach—become apprentices only when they join the main company.
“Everybody has a different kind of system,” says BA Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin. “If you try and put it all together and figure out if there’s a continuum, I’m not sure there is.”
Among the second companies that exist now, pay is a big issue. Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, says, “The problem is that most ballet companies treat those dancers as students,” who, he adds, are in the in-between stage of their careers. AGMA, however, can only negotiate on behalf of dancers recognized as employees.
Because of this, BAII makes it a point to be upfront, both at auditions and post-hire. Audition forms break down all company components, and auditions are followed with 10-minute Q&A sessions.
BAII dancers are apprentices who take company class and do four to five productions of their own each spring, sign a 34-week, non-union contract and receive $150 to 200 per week. Their days end at 3:30 pm, which allows for second jobs. While many take on babysitting and catering work, Martin says, “We try and encourage them to look beyond what’s automatically an easy thing and to use their skills [that are not related to dance] in another area they’re interested in pursuing.”
On the other hand, Martin points to the benefits, such as the individual attention and feedback her dancers receive, such as conferences, goal-setting sessions and self evaluation. “Our goal for them is to develop as artists. There has to be something in it for them. It can’t be about Ballet Austin using kids to go out and demonstrate. It is incumbent on us to provide resources to position them to be successful. Sometimes it’s helping them see that they won’t fit in the industry where they think they will fit.”
Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet has no second company. Former artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell decided against it, worried it would distract young dancers. PNB Professional Division students “were in the big productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker—but not all the time,” Russell says. “We wanted them to understand their main purpose was to complete their training. I think it’s wonderful for them to perform, but they’re still students.”
BAII’s Martin agrees, though she says, “That’s why each year we make little changes to better serve the dancers and us. It can be distracting. There was a time when they would be in some school cafeteria [doing outreach] and not getting a full class. We scaled back. It’s a balance.”
But for Kirk Peterson, ABT Studio Company’s artistic director, there’s no substitute for getting onstage. “Personally, I find dancers who’ve performed a lot have it much easier,” he says. To him, joining a company fresh out of school is like being thrown “into the deep end of the pool,” because professional dancers get so little personal attention.
“Of course, it’s essential to focus on their technique,” Peterson emphasizes, giving the example of one boy who doesn’t yet have sufficient upper body strength for partnering. While ABT staff helps him overcome that, he’ll do what’s appropriate for his level of development onstage.
One of Peterson’s goals is to nail down more performance opportunities during the summer months. His 12 dancers, who are ages 17 to 20, supplement the main company’s Metropolitan Opera House season after their eight-month contracts end in April. During the 2006-07 season, the Studio Company will perform at an AIDS benefit, universities, in various Nutcrackers and a gala in Bermuda. They’ll also take part in a three-week residency at White Oak in Florida and perform new choreography by Adam Hougland, Peterson’s Eyes That Gently Touch and Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. (The Studio Company is the first second company to receive permission to dance the Tudor ballet.)
Opportunity is a big bonus at Pennsylvania Ballet II. In 2005, PBII joined the main company to perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Closer to home, the company performs 25 to 30 times a year, and the roles can be big. Ian Hussey, a former PBII member who became a company apprentice in 2006, danced Black Swan pas de deux variations while still in the second company. In addition to learning variations, Hussey says he prized working on big jumps and partnering in the
junior company. “It’s a skill that’s difficult and important,” he emphasizes. “It can make or break your career.”
“I wish I had had this experience when I was a young dancer,” says PBII Director William DeGregory, a former Pennsylvania Ballet principal. “They’re doing outreach stuff with me they’d never touch if they were a corps member: soloist and pas de deux roles, partnering and pointe work.”
Calling it a win-win situation for all, DeGregory wonders why every company doesn’t maintain a second company.
“I think it works fantastically,” he says. “It’s a great, great learning vehicle.”
Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.
Some clothes just look better when they're in motion. And what motion is more beautiful than that of a ballet dancer? Fashion designer Christian Siriano (of "Project Runway" fame) recently tapped three ABT Studio Company dancers to show off his Spring/Summer collection. Katerina Eng, Isabelle Seiler and Carolyn Lippert dance in this dreamy ad set in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. They look gorgeous—and so do the dresses.