Rogers in Twyla Tharp's "The Princess and the Goblin." Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Five years after joining American Ballet Theatre, corps member Zhong-Jing Fang sustained a serious ankle injury. Not one to let a setback take her off course, Fang wondered: What other things can I do as an artist? She loved imitating movie actresses as a child, so she decided to try acting while she recovered. For two years, she went every Wednesday evening to a four-hour group class with acting coach Diaan Ainslee. There she learned to dissect a monologue, develop a character, listen and feel emotionally exposed. The experience thrust Fang out of her comfort zone and transformed her as an artist. “It's a different layer of becoming a person," Fang says, “and becoming much more real."
Acting classes, which often incorporate exercises aimed at self-exploration, can offer dancers tools to deepen their artistry. Even simple things, Fang notes, like working without mirrors, can inspire you to go beyond image and find a deeper sense of self. “There is a lot more to say, beyond just being able to dance," she says. Here, Fang and three other dancers explain how acting skills have made them better performers.
During Nutcracker season, when Christopher Ruud was a young student at the San Francisco Ballet School, he often eluded his chaperone to lead his fellow boy party guests through the catacombs and across the catwalks of the War Memorial Opera House. This historic theater was a backdrop to Ruud’s childhood even before his formal training began: San Francisco Ballet corps dancers were his babysitters, ballets were viewed from the wings and stage makeup was learned watching his dad prepare for performance.
Second-generation professionals are rarities, but among them, these memories are a normal part of their childhoods. “I grew up backstage watching my dad dance and being around the whole ballet scene,” says Ruud, who is now a principal dancer at Ballet West. Ruud’s father, the late Tomm Ruud was a BW and SFB principal who later became a character dancer and choreographer, and his mother, Mary Wood, was also a BW dancer, who taught at SFBS while her son was growing up.
With ballet in their blood, dancers whose parents also danced may seem to have it made. But they often have more to consider when entering the profession.
Certainly, dancers’ children have a few competitive advantages. They often have access to outstanding training from an early age. Ruud, for instance, started studying at SFBS at age 8, while New York City Ballet principal Kyra Nichols, daughter of Sally Streets—a NYCB corps dancer in the 1950s—took her first ballet class when she was 4 years old (in the basement of her grandmother’s house in Berkeley, CA, where Streets had just started a school).
“Most dancers who have children who dance don’t want to teach them, but there weren’t any other teachers,” says Streets, now a renowned Bay Area teacher. “I believed in myself enough to take the chance with her, and it paid off.” Nichols’ training continued with Alan Howard, a former Ballet Russes and NYCB veteran, at Pacific Ballet, a school and semiprofessional ballet company in San Francisco. (Streets had come out of retirement to perform with the ensemble.) One year, Nichols, who had been spending summers at the School of American Ballet, was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy in a new version of Pacific Ballet’s Nutcracker, while her mother would be Arabian. “She was like, ‘OK, you’re taking my parts now. You’re off to New York,’” Nichols laughs. “I’d already been asked to go, but it fortified [the decision to] move.” She was 15 when she went to SAB full time, and halfway through the year, she was hired into NYCB.
Australian Ballet principal Damien Welch—brother of Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch and son of former AB dancers Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones (who was also once one of the company’s artistic directors)—had impeccable training as well, except he didn’t begin until he was 15 years old. And then, after only nine months of taking class in his parents’ studio, he landed a coveted spot at the Australian Ballet School. “It was a very rich way to start, coming at it so late,” says Welch, explaining that he knew exactly what he was getting into, because he’d been around ballet all his life, whether helping out backstage as a dresser or appearing in full-lengths as an extra.
In a field where going pro is virtually impossible if training doesn’t begin by the age of 10, Welch’s rapid ascent may have been given a boost by his background, however, Marilyn Jones didn’t expect either of her sons to end up as dancers. She says, “It’s like a child growing up surrounded by people speaking different languages. It becomes part of your nature, and the development is quicker. Damien grew up in the theater, so he had a great understanding. He could pick up [steps] quickly, and you need to be around [ballet] to do that for sure, especially starting at that age.”
Second-generation dancers are also likely to get noticed, whether in class, at auditions or onstage, simply because they have a known name attached to them already. Being in an environment where teachers, ballet masters and guest choreographers already know you, however, can exert added pressure. “They can’t go anywhere without running into somebody who knew their parents,” says Ruud’s mother, Wood. “The blessing is you automatically have an underpinning of familiarity. The curse is that people have expectations, or they’re looking at you more critically.”
Already being part of the bigger ballet family has other rewards. For instance, Jacques d’Amboise, who knew Streets from her NYCB days, took Nichols under his wing when she was at SAB. Likewise, when Ruud was studying ballet at the University of Utah, his parents’ alma mater, he had the chance to learn Coppélia from Willam Christensen, who had taught his father many years before. “It impacted me to sit there and think this man [had said] the same things to my father and here I am,” Ruud recalls.
The common thread between Nichols, Ruud and Welch’s experiences is that they learned what it means to be a professional in a way (and at an age) that other dancers don’t. “Watching [my father] was the foundation for my professionalism,” says Ruud. “I never got to be special simply because of my dad. I learned to suck it up and be a dancer, and not Tomm’s son.” Growing up in a ballet household also taught him how to navigate ballet’s notorious politicking. “One misstep or misspoken word and everyone has this opinion of you,” says Ruud. “I got advice from my mom about things like rising above, holding my head up high and doing the right thing.”
Nichols says that she too learned a great deal from watching her mother, especially when the pair toured together internationally with Pacific Ballet through Europe and Israel. “She always made the best of any situation,” Nichols recalls of her mom. “Just because [you might be performing in] a crappy theater in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean you just phone it in. You give your all.”
Despite following in one or both parents’ footsteps, each of these artists has had to cope with rising standards and to establish a distinct career on his or her own terms. “Dancers’ technique has changed,” says Jones. “Their legs are higher, and there are more turns—there is stronger technique with progress.” And Jones is proud of her sons’ successes: “They’re professionals now, and I feel like they could teach me a thing a two.” Streets agrees: “Up to a certain point, Kyra was learning from me, but when she became a prominent performer, I learned so much. I never can quite believe when she’s onstage that it’s her—and that this thing that is so very wonderful has happened.”
Though the journey to artistic and technical independence began for Nichols when she moved to New York City and for Welch when he began ABS’ professional program, Ruud took a more unusual path: When he was 14, he quit ballet entirely. “He had a pretty classic syndrome of having worked at his parents business all these years and just needed to get away from the family,” says Wood. “Tomm and I encouraged him to step away—we didn’t want him to be sitting on a therapist’s couch saying ‘my parents made me.’ [But privately, we] said, ‘Darn it! He was so good, and he’s going to miss out on the training in this critical teenage time.’”
Ruud didn’t return to dance until he enrolled in a ballet class in college and was recruited into the ballet department right away by the faculty. Reconnecting with ballet was, in many aspects, a way of reconnecting with his father, who died when Ruud was 17. “We had an incredible relationship, and we knew each other very well,” says Ruud. “But you can only know so much about a person in the few short years of being a kid, so subconsciously I was following the trail to see what I could learn…. I had to go be where [dad] was and figure it out for myself.”