When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."
Growing up in Michigan, Jessy Dick was used to her daily hour-long drives to the Grand Rapids Ballet School, where she trained. But when she started to think about summer intensives, a new problem emerged: Auditions for the schools she was interested in were even farther away, in Chicago or Detroit. "I learned early on that if I wanted to do any summer programs, I'd have to travel at least three hours in order to audition," says Dick, now a member of The Washington Ballet's Studio Company.
Making plans for your summer training is complicated enough, especially with the sheer number of programs to choose between. But students who live far from popular audition hubs face the additional hurdle of organizing, scheduling and budgeting for audition trips. Luckily, with strategic planning, what can feel overwhelming at first can become a rewarding experience.
In her third year as a full company member of Alberta Ballet, Alexandra Gibson was amazed to learn she would be understudying Myrtha in Giselle. "Prior to that I had mostly played to my strengths in innocent, young roles," remembers Gibson, who didn't expect to actually perform the icy Queen of the Wilis. Yet when the first-cast Myrtha sprained her ankle a few weeks before opening night, Gibson was suddenly cast for six out of the nine shows. "Learning how to be cold, authoritative and mature in a short amount of time was as challenging as the choreography."
Every once in a while, you'll encounter roles that just don't click. Sometimes you will be cast against type, or thrown into a part that you don't feel ready for. Other times, unfamiliar choreography or movement styles may throw you off your game. In those instances, how do you remain unflappable and open to feedback in order to mold your body and mind to the role at hand? Three professionals get real about how they have struggled to do just that, and how they have grown as artists through the process.
Alexandra Gibson and artists of Alberta Ballet in "Giselle." Photo by Maximillian Tortoriello, Courtesy Alberta Ballet.
When in Doubt, Ask
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.
My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.
Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.
A beautifully winged foot is the perfect complement to an arabesque line. But according to Marika Molnar, president and founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy, learning how—and when—to wing requires subtle work and an understanding of the leg's alignment.
Often, she sees dancers winging before, not after, they point their ankle, foot and toes. Instead, the wing should be the final touch. "If you follow the line of the middle of your thigh through the middle of your kneecap down through the middle of your shin, that line should come out where your second toe is," says Molnar. Then you can slightly wing your foot while maintaining that alignment.
It's a staple of grand allégro, but tour jeté—also called grand jeté entournant or entrelacé—is not easy. Miami City Ballet School's Geta Constantinescu shares how she helps her students fly higher.
Geta Constatinescu working with a Miami City Ballet School student. Photo by Pavel Antonov, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.
Prepare with care: "Let's say you piqué arabesque on the right leg," says Miami City Ballet School faculty member Geta Constantinescu. As you chassé sideways, "that right leg has to go in back, not in front of the left leg. Many don't even notice that little mistake!" The left foot is then available as you turn to step forward onto it, going into the tour jeté.
Plié both legs generously as you brush the leg through first position, so you don't jump from just one. "Use the floor to help elevate yourself."
Be direct: Instead of brushing to grand battement devant, Constantinescu often sees dancers go through a rond de jambe or "something not very clear," she says. "What is front, where is the toe going when you toss it in the air?" She suggests practicing the brush en avant in tendu and adagio combinations, to "imprint" that pathway.
Let the arms assist: Coordinate your port de bras with your grand battement. The arms go up through high fifth as you take off. They begin to open, Constantinescu says, "right at the top of the jump."
Practice your takeoff and landing at the barre with this combination: Grand battement devant on demi-point, turning towards the barre as you close fifth to finish on the other side with the opposite leg in arabesque plié.
Think "forward": As the legs switch, think of the arabesque in the air as a "demi-penché" to create space for a greater split. "Feel connected from the lower belly to the heart center as the leg goes back," says Constantinescu. "That lifting of the sternum supports the line of the demi-penché."
Imagine you're "kicking a ball" with the front leg as the back leg scissors into arabesque, like in a big sissone ouvert. "This will incorporate that quality of split in the air."
Striving for higher extensions, more turnout and bigger jumps may be at the top of your agenda in daily class. But what about those finer points of your technique, the subtleties that make a dancer really shine? They need just as much of your attention, and letting seemingly innocuous bad habits linger will impact your overall dancing.
"There are no shortcuts in ballet," says Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. "You can't expect good results by ignoring details that are the building blocks of technique." We break down five bad habits that are easy to overlook—but have a major impact.
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1. Have faith in your fifth: It's hard to trust that your fifth position will give you enough force to turn. As a result, Jenifer Ringer sees dancers "lean forward, stick their bottoms out or move their front legs so they're not really turning from fifth." Try practicing a clean single pirouette without cheating. "It takes figuring out," she acknowledges, but you'll add rotations "without losing the integrity of your technique."
Being in the corps can be pretty unforgiving. You dance in nearly every performance, it sometimes feels like you're only onstage to add to the scenery, and you're expected to fit in—while still vying for soloist roles. It's enough to make even the most determined dancer lose steam. Pointe spoke with three corps de ballet dancers about how they use a combination of self-discipline and creativity to keep themselves motivated.
Shine in Class
After a few years, morning class can feel like a chore—especially during heavy rehearsal periods when your body just wants to rest. But rather than viewing it as a drag, try reframing class as a chance to show your best, hardest-working self. For San Francisco Ballet corps member Rebecca Rhodes, class is a time to push harder, not slack off. "It's a great time to be noticed," she says, especially for dancers hoping to be cast in featured roles. "I make sure to do every combination two or three times, and I try not to pick and choose what's comfortable," she says.
When Holly Dorger arrived in Copenhagen to join the Royal Danish Ballet after graduating from the School of American Ballet, she was shocked by the unfamiliar. “We brought home cat food thinking it was canned tuna," she laughs, recollecting her first weeks among new surroundings. Nine years later, the principal dancer calls Copenhagen home, crediting Denmark and artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe for her success.
European dance companies typically offer secure contracts, better salaries and a varied repertoire. Yet for American dancers, understanding a new culture, adjusting to different company dynamics and getting used to European contemporary work can be challenging. Below, dancers from four European companies weigh in on what they've learned from moving abroad.
Shelby Williams. Photo Courtesy Royal Ballet of Flanders.
This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."
Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.
Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.
Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.
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