Ballet Training
Summer intensive students in contemporary class at Arts Umbrella. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Arts Umbrella.

Before attending the Alonzo King LINES Ballet summer program at age 18, Maya Harr did not have much experience with improvisation. In fact, she was such an introverted bunhead that even the word seemed scary. "The teacher came into the studio, turned off the lights, put on music and told us to dance," says Harr, now a LINES company member. "We didn't stop moving for 45 minutes, and I was grateful for the freedom I've found."

You might feel obligated to spend your summer honing your technique at a classical ballet program. Yet as ballet companies open their repertoires to more contemporary works from choreographers like Aszure Barton, Kyle Abraham, Crystal Pite and Nicolo Fonte, you may want to consider opening yourself up to contemporary styles and the outside-the-box thinking that underlies them. "This work is necessary for the future of ballet," says Dwight Rhoden, artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and its affiliated summer intensive.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Courtney Henry and Jeffrey Van Sciver in an Alonzo King LINES Ballet rehearsal. Photos by Kathryn Rummel.

I'm performing in a contemporary ballet piece for the first time and every rehearsal feels like I've never danced a day in my life. Help! —Simone

Keep reading... Show less
Roper took her first ballet class in college. Photo by Theik Smith, Courtesy Roper.

At first glance, Ballet Hispanico second-company member Stefanie Roper looks as though she has been dancing since she could walk. Her perfectly arched feet and petite, athletic frame accentuate a particular fluidity of movement that only the most seasoned dancer tends to be able to harness. But Roper didn't follow the conventional ballerina's path, where training from age 5 is the norm.

The Utah native first encountered dance as a freshman at Utah Valley University in Orem. Roper's pride in her Colombian and Venezuelan heritage led her to audition for a cultural-folklore dance company. Within a couple of months, she was choreographing, producing and directing most performances.

Keep reading... Show less
"There's a whole aspect to the craft of choreography that involves directing and leading a group of people. And it's like dancing: You need to practice, to work on being a leader," says Crystal Pite. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

Photographed for Pointe by Julien Benhamou

Crystal Pite considers herself to be on the contemporary end of the dance spectrum, but she's playing in the major league of ballet companies this season. In September, the Canadian choreographer debuted The Seasons' Canon, a large-scale work for 54 dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet; in March, she will follow up with her first work for The Royal Ballet.

For POB, The Seasons' Canon turned out to be a powerful collective experience at a time of transition. The French institution was left in turmoil by former director Benjamin Millepied's resignation announcement last February, but Pite channeled their strengths into a rare creation using a third of the company's impressive roster. In just four weeks—“a sprint" according to the choreographer—she took the dancers on a creative ride. “They're open, willing, generous, patient and delightfully hungry," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Kathryn Rummel for Pointe.

Photographed by Kathryn Rummel for Pointe.

Courtney Henry knew she wanted to dance for Alonzo King LINES Ballet while she was still a student in the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. “I saw LINES perform at The Joyce Theater, and I was blown away, particularly by the women," she remembers. “They were commanding and strong, even scary in how powerful they were. I was like, 'I want to dance like that.' "

She did a 2009 summer program with LINES in San Francisco, then auditioned in 2011. In Henry, King saw an ideal artist for his contemporary ballet company. A lithe six feet tall, the 27-year-old dancer brings the intense physicality and sky-high extensions that King's abstract choreography requires, but also the musicality and technical mastery that make his ballets so mesmerizing.

Keep reading... Show less
Alexis Fletcher rehearsing Crystal Pite's Solo Echo. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.

Vancouver, British Columbia's 2010 Olympic Winter Games were golden for more than just big-name athletes.

Like so many Vancouverites at that time, Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher and her husband, former rehearsal director Sylvain Senez, struggled to keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of living. The couple wondered if they could rent out two empty bedrooms to Olympic visitors to help make ends meet. “We posted our place on Craigslist, just to see what would happen," Fletcher explains.

Keep reading... Show less
Andrea Yorita in Matthew Neenan's Increasing. Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.

Cross-training keeps Andrea Yorita prepared for the demanding variety in BalletX's repertoire.

Choreographic chameleon: At BalletX, Andrea Yorita performs a wide range of contemporary ballet by dancemakers like Matthew Neenan, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Trey McIntyre. “It's very hard on our feet," she says. “Even within a show, we'll go from socks to bare feet to flat shoes to pointe shoes."

A solid foundation: To keep their pointework crisp, the dancers typically take class on pointe five days a week. Yorita also does Thera-Band work for her ankles each morning, plus doming exercises. “I try to keep all of those little muscles on the bottom of my feet strong, so I can be grounded when I'm dancing in socks."

Keep reading... Show less
Wonderbound's Candice Bergeron and Damien Patterson in Winter. Photo by Amanda Tripton, Courtesy Wonderbound.

When she was a teenager, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Seia Rassenti's training was about as classical as it could get. A full-time bunhead at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she was determined to get a solid technical foundation. But she knew in her heart that she wanted to dance contemporary.

Nearly every summer, Rassenti would attend a contemporary ballet program, like Complexions, The Ailey School or Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. "That was my outlet," she says. "Each program had a different atmosphere, and I met some really cool people who had interests outside of ballet." Then at summer's end, she would faithfully return to the classical world and get back to "work." For Rassenti, her classical training was her means to an end. And it paid off: She earned a contract with Charlotte Ballet's second company (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre 2), known for its diverse and innovative repertoire.

The road to a contemporary ballet career isn't a clear-cut path. And while strong classical technique is vital, nothing sticks out more than a bunhead in pink tights at a contemporary audition. That's because traditional ballet training does not typically prepare dancers for the contemporary genre's emphasis on collaborating, questioning, improvising and baring your soul even when it doesn't feel pretty. So if a ballet dancer knows that this is the world she was made for, what can she do to prepare?

Branch Out

Josie Walsh's contemporary class at Joffrey Ballet School's summer intensive. Photo by Jody Quinby Kasch, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

A classical foundation is essential for contemporary ballet companies, especially those that work on pointe. But classically trained dancers face a specific set of challenges: They have to learn to isolate each body part, pick up detailed choreography quickly and embrace being off-center. "You have to learn to trust your classical technique, to let go of it," says Rassenti.

"I find that a lot of classically trained dancers lose their natural instincts," says Josie Walsh, artistic director of Joffrey Ballet School's Contemporary Ballet Intensive in San Francisco and founder of Ballet RED. "They're trying to be this classical ideal, and they get very separate from something more organic."

Walsh recommends supplementing your training with a variety of classes, like modern, jazz and even hip hop to practice freer styles of movement and learn how to pick up small details quickly. Dawn Fay, producing director of Wonderbound in Denver, Colorado, also recommends hip hop, explaining its benefits on a basic anatomical level: Whereas classical ballet tends to be smoother and utilizes "slow twitch" muscle fibers, hip hop involves sudden movements, which require finely tuned "quick twitch" muscle fibers.

Christine Cox, artistic and executive director of BalletX in Philadelphia, also recommends recreational classes like Zumba, or if you're old enough, going to a dance club to find your innate rhythm and let go of trying to fit a mold. "It's really important that dancers can move every part of their bodies in a new and different way," she says.

A New Mindset

Aspen Santa Fe's Seia Rassenti (right) in Beautiful Mistake. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Contemporary teachers often talk about finding "honesty" in choreography. But what does that mean? At its most basic, "honesty" refers to embracing (and revealing) your unprotected, vulnerable humanity, as well as letting your own voice shine through the choreography. "A lot of contemporary choreographers look to their dancers for ideas and want them to be a part of the process," says Cox.

But first, you must find your voice. Improvisation classes are one of the best ways to prepare. "It's a craft," says Walsh. "It's something that you have to do every day and get used to." Any style of improvisation is beneficial, but Karah Abiog, program director for Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, notes that Gaga is currently one of the most popular styles used for exploration.

It's also important to gain experience with the creation process to practice adapting to different choreographers' styles and learn how to pick up new material quickly. For Walsh, this is one of the most important qualities a dancer can possess: "When I'm choreographing, I would rather work with a dancer who is less talented but who can remember my choreography, than a more talented dancer who can't remember, so that I can keep moving quickly and follow through the line of inspiration."

Finding Balance

"Contemporary choreographers look to their dancer for ideas and want them to be a part of the process." –Christine Cox

BalletX's Andrea Yorita in Malasangre. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy BalletX.

It might seem like aspiring contemporary dancers have to work double duty, logging both classical and exploratory training hours each week. "It doesn't necessarily mean doubling your hours," says Abiog. "It's doubling your conscious way of working, your mindset."

To do this, Cox suggests finding a training equation that works for you, and keeping it consistent. For instance, devoting 75 percent of your week to ballet, and 25 percent to other styles such as jazz, modern technique or improvisation.

Regardless, Cox recommends connecting with your classical base every day. Fay, Abiog and Walsh agree: While thorough classical training might not be required in all contemporary dance, impeccable classical technique is non-negotiable to join a contemporary ballet company. Cleanliness and purity of line are difficult to instill in the body otherwise.

Strategizing Your Career

Ressenti in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's Square None. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Because "contemporary dance" is such a broad term, the first step towards approaching a career is to identify choreographers that you admire. Begin by researching online and going to performances, then by attending workshops, intensives or master classes hosted by your favorite companies and choreographers. Because they're all so different, it's important to know what you're getting into before you make a commitment.

Networking is key. Contemporary companies tend to be small, with dancers participating in the creation process, so most directors want to get to know you on a personal level before offering a contract. When Walsh needs a new dancer quickly, for instance, the last thing she wants to do is organize a large audition. "I'll think, I really like that girl who came to my program in San Francisco," she says. "Taking you into a company is like taking you into a family. You're with these people every day."

Most importantly, think about your career goals: For example, would you prefer a repertoire that offers both classical and contemporary works, or one that's strictly contemporary? Do you want to work with one choreographer or many? Would you prefer a company that works on pointe, or are you comfortable dancing mostly in socks?

For Rassenti, the mixed repertoire at Charlotte Ballet was a comfortable transition. But by the time she joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, she was ready to jump into contemporary full-time—and she hasn't looked back. "In this company, we create a lot of new works," she says. "I know that there is a part of my soul in every piece."

Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Shechter is best known for his grounded, highly physical contemporary work. In March, he will take over the Royal Opera House stage in London, with a world premiere for The Royal Ballet.

Pointe spoke with the choreographer prior to the premiere, and now, you can get a glimpse of his process in a behind-the-scenes video from The Royal. Shechter talks about translating his complex movement language onto highly trained ballet bodies, and his hope that the work will shift the energy in the house.

Currently, the Royal is gearing up for a summer tour to the U.S.—its first in eleven years—as well as a world premiere by Wayne McGregor inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Add Shechter's complex, non-balletic choreography to the mix and the company seems poised for a highly innovative spring and summer season.

 

 

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox