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During one of Charlotte Nash's first few weeks with Houston Ballet II, she was thrown into a run-through of Balanchine's Theme and Variations. "I had never really understudied before and I didn't know what I was doing," she says. "I fell right away and was quickly replaced." For Nash, now a dancer with Festival Ballet Providence, the episode was a tough lesson. "I was mortified, but then I said to myself, 'Okay, I need to figure out how to learn things more quickly.'"

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Ballet Careers
Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

The curtain falls, the costumes are packed away. Dancers say good-bye to the choreography, the adrenaline rush of being onstage and the special camaraderie of performing together. "You put your heart and soul into a show and then you're like, 'That's it?' " says Miami City Ballet principal Jeanette Delgado. "You hope you'll get to dance that piece again, but you can't know for sure."

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Ballet Training
Oregon Ballet Theatre's Kelsie Nobriga and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair rehearse Bournonville's Napoli. Yu Yin, Courtesy OBT.

Kelsie Nobriga's first run-through of Nacho Duato's Rassemblement was a wake-up call. Until then, the Oregon Ballet Theatre soloist had only rehearsed individual sections of the ballet, unaware that she'd have little time to recover in between each one. Discovering just how tiring the 27-minute ballet would be was terrifying. "The first time we ran it I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up," she recalls. "My quads would just give out. I was really nervous about how I was going to perform it onstage."

When you're gasping for breath, not only do the simplest steps feel impossible, but your risk of injury also increases. Stamina is a crucial part of a dancer's performance tool kit, though typical ballet classes don't do much to develop it. With some advance planning outside the studio, you can build up your cardiovascular and muscular endurance to make a marathon ballet less daunting.

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Nathalia Arja in George Balanchine's "Emeralds." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

Whether it's a wardrobe malfunction or a spectacular, opera-house–sized fail, onstage mistakes happen to everybody. See how these four professionals survived their worst mishaps—and what they took away from them.

Sterling Baca

Baca in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

"There I was on my very first day at the Metropolitan Opera House: on my hands and knees, center stage," recounts Pennsylvania Ballet principal Sterling Baca. He had joined American Ballet Theatre from the ABT Studio Company two weeks prior and didn't see a crucial casting sheet for the Don Quixote dress-tech rehearsal until minutes before it started.

In a domino-like sequence of unfortunate events, Baca had managed to get only half-dressed, and he missed his entrance and his character's dance with Kitri. Then he remembered too late that he was also supposed to catch Basilio's guitar. He turned around from setting down a tambourine to see the guitar already soaring through the air. He dove for it, but it grazed his fingertips, hit the floor and broke.

Baca had some literal and metaphorical pieces to pick up and apologies to make to the wardrobe and props departments, artistic staff and his fellow dancers. Luckily, everyone understood that he was new and "showed mercy," he says.

The Lesson: Although Baca can laugh about the incident now, he warns that "it only turns into a joke when you don't do it again." His advice? Double- and triple-check every single piece of paper on the call board.

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Nathalia Arja in George Balanchine's "Emeralds." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

Whether it's a wardrobe malfunction or a spectacular, opera-house–sized fail, onstage mistakes happen to everybody. See how these four professionals survived their worst mishaps—and what they took away from them.

Sterling Baca

Baca in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

"There I was on my very first day at the Metropolitan Opera House: on my hands and knees, center stage," recounts Pennsylvania Ballet principal Sterling Baca. He had joined American Ballet Theatre from the ABT Studio Company two weeks prior and didn't see a crucial casting sheet for the Don Quixote dress-tech rehearsal until minutes before it started.

In a domino-like sequence of unfortunate events, Baca had managed to get only half-dressed, and he missed his entrance and his character's dance with Kitri. Then he remembered too late that he was also supposed to catch Basilio's guitar. He turned around from setting down a tambourine to see the guitar already soaring through the air. He dove for it, but it grazed his fingertips, hit the floor and broke.

Baca had some literal and metaphorical pieces to pick up and apologies to make to the wardrobe and props departments, artistic staff and his fellow dancers. Luckily, everyone understood that he was new and "showed mercy," he says.

The Lesson: Although Baca can laugh about the incident now, he warns that "it only turns into a joke when you don't do it again." His advice? Double- and triple-check every single piece of paper on the call board.

Ballet Careers
Dorger in Royal Danish Ballet's production of Giselle . Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.

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.

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Georgina Pazcoguin as Victoria in the Broadway revival of CATS (photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy CATS)

A debilitating illness forced Katelyn Prominski to retire early from Pennsylvania Ballet. However, once she recovered, she felt ready to tackle a new stage: Broadway. But before she began booking musicals like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, she had to reckon with a new and humbling audition process. “When you go into a Broadway audition, you learn a dance combo first and then by the time they ask you to sing, your heart rate is going," says Prominski. “I remember one audition where I forgot the words and la-di-da'd my way through instead of singing the lyrics."

More and more ballet dancers are taking a chance on Broadway musicals. New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild recently starred in On the Town, while ballet-centric shows such as Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris have provided starring and ensemble opportunities for dancers from NYCB, The Royal Ballet Miami City Ballet and more. Many cite the artistic benefits of exploring an entirely new side of performance and the challenge of dancing, acting and singing. With eight shows a week, you get to practically live onstage and dive deep into a role. The pay is usually better, too. But in order to make this new world your own, you must be ready to rethink your audition approach and be open to a different set of professional expectations.

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Caralin Curcio at the International Summer Course for Professional Dancers. Photo Courtesy Kathleen Breen Combes.

While New York City Ballet was off last August, corps member Sasonah Huttenbach was hard at work at the Danish Ballet Masters program, a two-week Bournonville workshop in New York City led by former Royal Danish Ballet dancers Mogens Boesen and Linda Hindberg. While they have always offered a student intensive, last summer Boesen and Hindberg added a program for working dancers. “A lot of professionals just lean toward open classes or giving themselves class during layoffs, but sometimes you need the basics because you're rehearsing and performing so much," says Huttenbach, who attended the student intensive twice before joining NYCB. “It was great to spend time off perfecting my alignment and technique."

Wondering about how to spend your summer layoff weeks this year? While teaching or performance gigs are good ways to stay busy, off-time can also be perfect for brushing up your technique, exploring another style and networking with a broader range of dance professionals. From big cities to the beach, programs geared towards professionals can help reinvigorate your career and remind you that you can always go back to summer camp.

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Pullen in Colorado Ballet's production of La Sylphide. Photo Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Upon high school graduation, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college or pursuing a career right away. Since a dancer's professional life is short, many who put school on hold plan to eventually go back. But with more options than ever before—from online degree programs to night classes to college programs developed solely for dancers—it is becoming much easier to pursue a degree while performing professionally. Rather than wait until retirement, many dancers are getting a head start on their education now. Three dedicated professionals explain what they've gained by going back to school, and how they've made it happen.

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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.


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Smuin Ballet's Terez Dean. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Smuin Ballet

From the outside, one might assume that the stars onstage are leaders offstage, too. It might be so, but life in a company is usually more complex. Opportunities to volunteer, teach or represent fellow colleagues allow dancers at any rank to develop important skills and make their voices heard. Others take the lead simply by lifting company morale or setting a good example in the studio. In fact, leadership takes many forms—and you don't have to be a principal ballerina to be an influential company member whom others look up to. For these three dancers, stepping into leadership roles has given greater meaning and fulfillment to their careers.

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Jeffrey Cirio left a principal position at Boston Ballet to become a soloist at American Ballet Theatre. Photo Courtesy Cirio.

When Sarah Walborn first joined San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice, the excitement of joining her dream company soon gave way to dread. “I would go into work every day with fear as opposed to the excitement I had in school," explains Walborn, now with Ballet Arizona. “I didn't want to do any roles, much less go in for the workday." Something needed to change.

Acknowledging such negative thoughts can be scary and lonely for dancers, no matter what stage in their career. If you don't feel your company is the right fit, it can affect your motivation, a vital component in a profession that requires 110 percent every day. And yet, contemplating a move can bring up an equal number of anxieties. Luckily, employing a mix of self-reflection and research can help you avoid making a rash decision.


List Your Goals

Photo by Jess Watters via Unsplash.

To facilitate self-awareness and encourage self-assessment, Lauren Gordon, a career counselor with Career Transition For Dancers, recommends writing down an annual checklist of goals that reflects your aspirations in your company, for your overall dance career and for your personal life. How closely does your current experience match your checklist? If it doesn't, what will it take to get the two more aligned?

After some reflection, Walborn realized that she needed more training. "I was too immature," she says of her time at SFB. "I felt intimidated, so I held back and didn't push myself as much as I could have." The next year she reenrolled at her alma mater, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, to regain her confidence. While there, she concluded that she would be more comfortable dancing in a smaller company.

Signs You Should Leave

"I would go into work every day with fear as opposed to excitement." —Sarah Walborn. Photo by Beau Campbell, Courtesy Walborn.

While fear, such as Walborn described, can be a powerful indicator, there are other telltale signs that it's time to reassess your current environment. For instance, if you're consistently passed over for roles or a promotion that you feel you deserve, you may have better success elsewhere. A hostile or exploitative workplace situation is another indicator that you should move on.

Other times, the reason can be harder to put your finger on. For Jeffrey Cirio, who danced as a principal at Boston Ballet before taking a soloist position at American Ballet Theatre last year, it was feeling too comfortable. "I was getting to the point where I was doing everything opening night and going into rehearsal feeling more nonchalant," says Cirio. "I'd look back on a particular day or rehearsal and wish I would have pushed for more. Even though I was doing well, I needed a different mind-set."

Major company changes can also trigger thoughts about moving on. After dancing with The Washington Ballet Studio Company, Walborn joined Kansas City Ballet, where she felt at home right away. But during her second season, there was a change in the artistic directorship. When she felt KCB changing overall, it no longer felt like an artistic fit and she began to put out feelers. On a recommendation, she auditioned for Ballet Arizona, where she found director Ib Andersen's direct demeanor and approach to technique to be similar to hers.

When to Wait It Out

Cirio (center). Photo Courtesy Cirio.

Of course, no company is perfect, and not every complaint warrants walking away. "It's important to remember that the company is not the bad guy," says Gordon. "It's your responsibility to take care of your own goals and to be able to ask for things." Acknowledging the positive aspects of your work environment can help you assess the negative more clearly. For instance, maybe there is a tour or an exciting choreographer slated for next season, or perhaps your company offers an educational partnership with a local university.

"It can also be smart to stay longer when you aren't sure and need to gather more information," says Gordon. "The knowledge that steps are in motion can help you get through a season, take away the impatience and appreciate the work ahead."

Cirio, who had been in Boston his entire career, made his decision to leave over a two-year period. Aware that he still had great repertoire to dance and opportunities to choreograph, he also realized that if he went to a bigger company, he would probably have to accept a lower rank.

To be sure, he reached out to friends in other companies and consulted his sister, fellow BB principal Lia Cirio, who had made a similar career decision years before. "Be discreet about exploring," advises Gordon, "because it can be taken the wrong way. However, it can be tempting to say 'yes' to an offer without first knowing if it is a good fit. Research ahead of time and your decision will be more rational."

Taking your time can also help with making a graceful exit. "Every culture handles leaving differently," warns Gordon. "A good leave-taking process is important because in this profession everyone crosses paths and either helps or thwarts each other." Once Cirio was fairly certain of his decision to leave Boston Ballet, he sought out the advice of artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who ultimately gave his blessing. At the very least, planning a future move while cherishing your final moments at your current company can help make the transition easier.

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