In the fall of 2016, Miami City Ballet corps dancer Rebecca King Ferraro and former MCB corps member Michael Sean Breeden started Conversations on Dance, a podcast dedicated to giving listeners an inside look into the world of professional ballet by interviewing "some of the ballet world's best and brightest." Their episodes cover training, history and more; recent episodes feature New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay, New York City Ballet principals Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, and Los Angeles Ballet dancer Elizabeth Walker. This week on the podcast Ferraro and Breeden interviewed Pointe's editor in chief, Amy Brandt. Listen to Brandt discuss her dance career with Milwaukee Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, what it was like pursuing a college degree part-time while dancing professionally, and catch a deeper glimpse at the inner workings of Pointe.
Even if you've been wearing pointe shoes for years, chances are you have some questions. There are so many variables at play when it comes to finding the right shoe and making sure you're training safely.
And these panelists know their stuff: They include New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, podiatrist Dr. John Brummer, professional fitter Mary Carpenter, master teacher Gretchen Gunther, and Pointe's own editor-in-chief, Amy Brandt.
In The Wings: Jenna Nelson
At Pacific Northwest Ballet School
By Rosie Gaynor
Folks don’t always notice Jenna Nelson right off the bat. She has what Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal Abbie Siegel calls “a quiet strength.” It’s a steadfast presence that doesn’t beg for attention.
Once you spot her, though, she’s riveting. At 17, her movement is already sophisticated and crystalline. Her head knows exactly where to go, and her shoulders are starting to follow suit. She brings exceptional control and generosity to her long développés. Her frappés shoot straight out, precise, strong and yet somehow dainty. You’d never guess that she began dancing only six years ago.
Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB and a teacher at the school, speaks of Nelson’s refinement, line, fluidity—and her feet: “Jenna has found where her arch is strong. When she uses her feet well, they’re pretty much textbook.”
Nelson didn’t start out dreaming about ballet. She grew up playing soccer, and when she was 12, she signed up for ballet class with friends just for fun. It wasn’t long before she realized she loved it—or before her teacher sent her on to PNBS. The commute to Seattle proved impractical, however, so Nelson joined Evergreen City Ballet Academy, studying with former PNB dancers Wade Walthall and Julie Tobiason. But PNBS never lost track of Nelson, and they invited her to attend their summer programs. In the fall of 2008, Nelson made the leap to training at PNB full-time in their two-year Professional Division program, a step Tobiason facilitated by offering Nelson a room in her own home.
Technique reigns at PNBS, with a syllabus that emphasizes Balanchine but also trains dancers for the demands of contemporary ballet work. This suits Nelson, who prefers classical ballets but also dreams of performing Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. The school shares a building with the company, so there are multiple opportunities to learn through observation, including occasional participation in company class. Students perform with PNB as well. In 2009, Nelson danced three corps roles in Nutcracker, and also joined the company in Swan Lake, Symphony in C and West Side Story Suite.
Nelson’s schedule is a ballet student’s dream—if you gloss over the seven online courses she is taking to finish high school. After technique from 9:30 to 11:00 am comes an hour or so of pointe, variations, modern or partnering. (Recent variations have included excerpts from Études and The Four Temperaments.) A second technique class starts at 3:30, unless there’s a rehearsal.
What keeps Nelson focused in the competitive ballet world? “I try to stay concentrated on what I want,” she says, “and not to think about things too much but just enjoying dancing.”
At A Glance:
Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Director: Peter Boal
Past Directors: Janet Reed (1974–75), Melissa Hayden (1976), Francia Russell (1977–2005)
Technique Taught: Various, with an emphasis on Balanchine; syllabus designed to meet the eclectic demands of dance companies today
Classes Offered: Classical ballet technique, modern, pointe, variations, partnering
Number of Students: 950
Alumni in the Past 10 Years: Ballet Frankfurt, Boston Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, The Washington Ballet, among others
Focus: PNBS’ goal is to provide a healthy environment, inspiration and education. Dancers receive life-skills seminars, physical and nutritional guidance, performance opportunities and the chance to observe PNB members in their daily class, in rehearsals and in performance. The school flies in directors from 10–12 other companies each year to audition Professional Division students.
From YAGP to Degree
Youth America Grand Prix is now offering a new perk for finalists: the chance to audition for several top college dance departments at once. Representatives from such prestigious programs as Indiana University and Juilliard now attend the final round of YAGP to scout for talented high school seniors. Some even accept dancers and offer scholarships on the spot.
“I’d like to change the stereotype that you have to choose between a professional career in dance or college,” says University of Utah’s Department of Ballet professor Regina Zarhina, who heads the initiative. “If you look at job advertisements, most companies aren’t looking to hire very young and inexperienced dancers anymore.”
The program, which launched in 2009, includes an information session on dancing in college and each participating dance department presents information on their school. Dancers then take a combined audition class, which includes ballet, pointe and a short jazz section. For more information, go to www.yagp.org. You can also learn about each of the participating dance departments on DanceU101.com.
Winning a prestigious award is not only an opportunity for trophies, money and exposure. A win from a respected organization, such as the Princess Grace Foundation–USA, can provide opportunities that stretch far beyond the awards ceremony and into your professional career.
Princess Grace Award recipients not only get a boost on their resumés, they are also welcomed into a fraternity of artists and professionals. In addition to opportunities to network with all of the other winners since 1984, financial assistance is available—for life. “We offer winners assistance for special
projects and residencies,” says Toby E. Boshak, executive director of PGF–USA. “They can use the advantages throughout their career.”
For students, an award from PGF–USA can change their fate when they step into the professional world. “There is a level of prestige that goes along with the honor of winning a Princess Grace Award,” says Boshak.
Alexander Peters, 18, won in 2008 after the faculty at the School of American Ballet nominated him for the award. “I haven’t begun my professional career as a dancer yet,” he says, “but I have the award bolded at the top of my résumé and hope it will help open the door to some great opportunities in the future.”
Students in preprofessional, not-for-profit dance schools or undergraduate dance departments as well as professionals who have been a member of their company for less than five years are welcome to enter. Candidates must submit a joint application with their school or company, which can only nominate one dancer per year. The judging panel, made up of top dance professionals and artistic directors, chooses five or six winners in the dance performance category each year. Student winners receive a scholarship that covers one year of tuition at their school. Professional dancers are given one year of salary at their company. Applications are due by April 30. They can be found at www.pgfusa.com.
Dancing With Pros
Few student dancers are given the opportunity to learn new ballets alongside professionals. But last fall, the Rockville, Maryland–based American Dance Institute launched the ADI Chamber Ballet to give students a chance to do just that.
Directed by former American Ballet Theatre dancer Pamela Bjerknes, the company commissions up-and-coming choreographers to set and create their work on the students, who are joined by current dancers from The Washington Ballet.
“During my performing career, I watched how it always took new company members a year or two to understand how to work with a professional choreographer,” says resident choreographer Runqiao Du, a former dancer with TWB and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. “You have to learn not to be afraid of dancing with the full-on kind of attack that choreographers demand.”
The company’s next performance is scheduled for April 10, with original choreography by Du and TWB dancer Jared Nelson. For more information, visit www.americandance.org. —JS
TIP: How do you stay in top form during spring recital season?
Pace yourself: If you try it 1,000 times today, tomorrow you’ll be too sore to dance. Steady work will get you better results. And once you leave the studio, get your mind off ballet so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. When I’m doing a difficult role, I?need space away from it so I?can focus once I’m in the studio.
—Maggie Small, Richmond Ballet dancer
Inside a coaching session with Elena Kunikova
By Amy Brandt
Don Quixote’s Kitri—feisty, independent and free-spirited—explodes with personality from the moment she leaps onstage. Fiercely stubborn, she and Basilio cleverly plot to marry against her father’s wishes. While Kitri is no demure princess, she displays a proud elegance uniquely her own. The Grand Pas de Deux in Act III is the ballet’s highlight, and Kitri’s variation, with its intricate pointework, fluttering fan and Spanish flavor, gives dancers a wonderful opportunity to explore their individuality.
As a former ballerina with the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Elena Kunikova performed Kitri’s Act III variation many times. She now coaches professionals in the role, including American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko, New York City Ballet’s Ana Sophia Scheller and the male divas of Les Ballets Trockadero. She recently shared her expertise on mastering some of the difficult moments.
Spanish Port de Bras
One of the variation’s biggest challenges lies in its stylized port de bras. “Character dance is not widely taught in the West,” Kunikova says, “so many young dancers don’t know how to move their arms with Spanish flair.” Dancers often place their hands on their hips by pulling their elbows back and sticking out their wrists. “I call it ‘chicken wings,’ ” says Kunikova. “Instead, the palm should be delicately placed on top of the tutu, not grabbing the hip. The wrist should be pressed down and the elbow should be pushed slightly forward (make sure to keep your chest open) while the fingers sustain an elegant classical form.” Each time the arms transition from the hips to second position (and in reverse), they must pass through first position.
Kunikova stresses the importance of coordinating the head with the rest of your body. For instance, she says, “It looks more impressive to look up on the développé à la seconde. Then, look lower during the passés while possibly fanning yourself. It gives more diversity and amplitude to the steps.”
Proper Fan Position
Manipulating the fan presents another challenge. “Rehearse the variation using just the port de bras, without dancing, to incorporate the fan without worrying about what’s happening from the waist down,” Kunikova says. She notes that dancers shouldn’t rest their elbow against the body when holding the fan. Initiate slower, larger fan movements with the elbow, but use the wrist to
create quick, small flutters. For added security, dancers can attach the fan to their wrist with an elastic band.
The fan can help build tension and excitement through the variation, like during the échappé section. “You might keep it low in front of your chest for the first set,” says Kunikova, “then gradually add port de bras on the second and third sets to show the combination’s progression.”
The Final Footwork
The variation’s final section—a series of alternating hops on pointe across the stage (called taqueté in French)—is its trickiest. The hopping foot must maintain a cupped shape to properly support the body. “It’s the only moment in ballet vocabulary when we have to make the foot ugly,” says Kunikova. Keep your weight on the supporting leg to control balance, using a shallow plié. Engaging opposition in the legs and shoulders is very characteristic for Spanish-styled ballet, and it accentuates the body’s position changes.
Exploring Kitri’s Character
Kunikova sees many avenues of artistic interpretation. “Kitri’s character can be quite different,” she says. “She could be proud, playful, willful or humorous.” However, dancers should avoid trying to appear sultry. “I call it the ‘Black Swan impersonation.’ Too much sultriness, especially for younger dancers, isn’t appropriate or true to their age.” Keep in mind that the variation is part of Kitri’s wedding celebration. “She should be joyous!”
While Kitri’s variation allows for lots of individual expression, Kunikova advises young students first learning the dance to avoid overloading it with too many details. “Instead,” she says, “keep it simple and clear.” Flourishes can be added later with experience and practice.
I just found out I fractured my talus (ankle) and can’t dance for 4-6 weeks. How should I ease my way into dance after my doctor gives me the okay? —Emily, Winchester, VA
You’re wise to want to ease back into shape, because bone injuries need plenty of time to heal. I had a fractured ankle once, so I know from experience! Since your talus is a weight bearing bone, you’ll probably be off your feet for a while. I asked Michael Leslie, a physical therapist on staff with the San Francisco Ballet, for some expert advice. He recommends doing floor barre as a way to stay active during your time off. “It’s non-weight-bearing, and you’ll have a stronger core when you come back,” he says.
You can start adding cross-training activities, like Pilates and Thera-Band exercises, when your doctor gives you clearance. Once the bone is healed, try a standing barre. “Use pain as your guide,” says Leslie, “gradually increasing the level of difficulty over time.” If you have access to a pool, try giving yourself barre in the water—I found pool barre especially helpful when I was recovering from my injury because gravity is less of a factor. Once you feel stronger, gradually begin center exercises. Listen to your body, and stop if your ankle begins to hurt. It’s tempting to want to push through the pain, but you could jeopardize the healing process.
Leslie advises you to stretch carefully. You can stretch your hips, hamstrings and quads, but avoid overstretching the calf muscle and ankle. Instead, try gently flexing the foot, using the muscles in front of your shin with both a bent and straight leg to get a moderate stretch. He also recommends the doming exercise (see “Ask Amy” June/July ‘09) to strengthen your foot’s intrinsic muscles. “Doming strengthens the muscles right around the ankle joint, but doesn’t put excess stress on it,” he says.
Be patient—you will probably feel weaker as you start back, and you might get frustrated easily. Certain steps are also scary if they irritate your foot, but try not to start compensating. For instance, I had an awful time with pirouettes to the left when I came back from my stress fracture. It took me a while to work through the fear and turn properly again. Stay focused with your strengthening exercises and listen to your body. With time, you’ll come back a smarter and stronger dancer.
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
It seems like every other week I have a new injury: hip issues, Achilles tendonitis, back problems. I’m afraid this will stunt my career— it’s hard to improve when I’m always injured. What can I do? —Frustrated
Injuries are exasperating, but nonetheless a part of our profession. Make sure you’re taking time to heal properly. It’s tempting to try to push through when you should be resting. I developed a rare hip injury early in my career. I could barely lift my leg, but I was so anxious about casting that I did not have it properly evaluated for months. Well, I didn’t get the part, and I permanently damaged my hip. I also developed knee and ankle problems as a result of compensating.
Use the time off as an opportunity to learn about your body’s weaknesses, quirks and asymmetries. I found that my right hip socket cocks slightly inward, so certain muscles are weaker. Now I regularly stretch and strengthen that side to prevent further strains.
Once your body is well enough to get back to class, don’t be embarrassed if you need to modify combinations for a while. You’ll learn to work correctly, which will benefit your dancing in the end.
I’m never satisfied with my pointe shoes. I’ve tried several and they always make my feet look more turned in than they actually are! What should I do? —Janice, California
Pointe shoes can sometimes magnify imperfections. In all honesty, maintaining turnout is more difficult once you’ve got the boots on. Make sure you’re taking a sincere look at your technique and not just blaming your shoes.
That said, finding the perfect pair takes a while. I’ve changed my shoes many times during my career. Find a professional fitter to measure your feet and recommend shoes based on your foot type. “Look at the box shape of your shoe,” says Mary Carpenter, a New York–based teacher and shoe fitter. “If you have a square foot and you’re wearing a tapered box, it’s going to twist. If you have a narrow, tapered foot and you wear a square box, you’re going to sink in it.”
There are also tricks that can improve the look of your shoe. Some dancers criss-cross their elastics to tighten up excess material, or sew the sides down lower. Consider trying a special-order shoe. They take a while to come in, but you can customize everything to your liking.
My arabesque is stuck at 90 degrees. How can I make it go higher? —Talia, Florida
I’m so glad you asked—I used to have the same problem! Thankfully, my arabesque significantly improved over time. It’s still not great—94 degrees on a warm day—but at least it’s acceptable.
I suspect you either have an inflexible back or you’re holding your arabesque improperly. Or both, as was my case. Luckily, a teacher taught me a great exercise that can help you increase flexibility and find proper placement.
You’ll need two portable barres and a mirror. Set the barres parallel to the mirror, one about four feet behind the other. Take an arabesque, placing your foot on the back barre and your hands on the front barre. Observe your position. Are your shoulders down and square, ribs aligned, hips pulled up, arabesque leg turned out and behind you? (Use a lower barre if you can’t maintain the correct position.) Take three slow, deep pliés, keeping your upper back lifted. After the third plié, lift your back leg off the barre (without compromising your shoulders), hold, and lower the leg back down. Repeat, for a total of four times on each side. Stretch your back and hips in the opposite direction as soon as you’re finished. My flexibility, position and strength improved, and hopefully yours will, too.
Talking to Amy: Houston Ballet Principal Barbara Bears
I’ve had four foot surgeries, and have unfortunately experienced trickle-down injuries when coming back. You tend to compensate when you’re not 100 percent, so other things flare up. As dancers, we have to listen to our bodies. If something’s bothering you, talk to your instructor and then have it looked at by a dance medicine specialist. If you have several serious injuries, look at how you’re working. Are you not wearing the proper shoes, or not warming up well enough before class? Do your own little bit of investigating.
Our very own advice columnist, former Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt, recently did an interview for the ballet podcast Balancing Pointe. In it she shares her personal—and not entirely traditional—journey through the professional ballet world, and her words of wisdom for aspiring dancers. (Faithful "Ask Amy" readers know just how wise Amy's words are.)
The podcast goes live the morning of Saturday, February 1, at which point you can find it in the following locations:
Stitcher Radio: app.stitcher.com/browse/feed/40712/details