During the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's tour to Washington, DC's Kennedy Center earlier this year, the company brought longtime artistic director Alicia Alonso's Giselle. And while the production was admittedly well-worn and the style of dancing old-fashioned, the dancers rose to the occasion, led sensitively by longtime BNC star Viengsay Valdés in the title role.
A company's corps de ballet is rarely the pool from which title roles are plucked. Yet New York City Ballet seems to buck convention, especially for its full-length production of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet. When it debuted back in 2007, the ballet featured a cast of untested corps members and apprentices as the eponymous stars. (A School of American Ballet student was originally tapped to dance Juliet, but she wasn't able to perform due to injury.) At the time Martins, who recently retired as NYCB's ballet master in chief, attributed his casting choices to the characters' ages in Shakespeare's play; Juliet and Romeo are 14 and 19, respectively. Also, he remarked, "Never underestimate youth."
This week, two young Romeos are stepping up from the company's corps. Harrison Coll made his debut on February 13, opening night, alongside principal Sterling Hyltin (the original Juliet in the production's opening night performance back in 2007). Peter Walker follows on Friday, February 16.
In a polished cast of Sir Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations at an American Ballet Theatre performance last October, corps member Betsy McBride shone with a warmth that belied the piece's crystalline, cold precision. Dark-haired with large, light-catching eyes, McBride was more coiled spring than willowy sylph, evident in the way her pliant limbs shot rather than floated to Ashton's prescribed positions. While the choreography's measured steps and lowered legs may seem particularly limiting for someone with McBride's flexibility, she managed to find pockets of expansion in the restricted movement. She lunged a little deeper, sailed on pointe a little longer, her open face lingering in the spotlight until the very last moment.
Symphonic Variations marked McBride's debut in a principal role with ABT, yet it was not the 25-year-old's first taste of the spotlight. She began her career at Texas Ballet Theater at just 15, becoming a principal by 19. Under TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson, she performed roles that most dancers her age still covet—Juliet, Odette/Odile, Aurora—before leaving the company for an ABT corps contract in 2015.
McBride (far left) with Devon Teuscher and Cassandra Trenary in "Symphonic Variations." Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT.
Alaina Andersen, as told to Suzannah Friscia
I got my corps contract on my 18th birthday. It was such a relief. I had convinced myself that I would be okay not dancing, but inside I just wanted to get a contract with Miami City Ballet.
I'd trained at Milwaukee Ballet School pretty much my whole life, and in 2014 I went to the MCB summer program and loved it. They invited me to stay for the year, and right when I got there, they offered me an apprenticeship. I spent the next two years as an apprentice. My second year I got to tour with the company and did Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Bourrée Fantasque.
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.
Every corps de ballet has a few bright standouts. Here are 10 young dancers on the rise.
Norika Matsuyama in "Don Quixote." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
San Francisco Ballet
Norika Matsuyama recently finished her second year in San Francisco Ballet's corps, but her repertoire already looks like a veteran soloist's: Cupid in Don Quixote, a solo Wili and Shade, Balanchine's Theme and Variations and Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. She capped off the 2016 season with her debut as Olga in John Cranko's Onegin, one of her dream roles.
For someone so accomplished, the 22-year-old is exceptionally humble. “I never expected I would get to do these roles," she says. “When I saw my name on the rehearsal schedule for Olga, I was so excited. I'm super-grateful."
Ever wonder what life is like as a corps de ballet dancer in a major company? While principals and soloists get all of the glory, dancing in the corps has a special beauty all its own—and takes just as much work. Isabel Garcìa, a dancer with the National Dance Company of Mexico, spoke with Caroline Bird, an American corps de ballet member of the Staatsballett Berlin, about the joys and struggles of her rank.
What role do you think a corps de ballet plays in a national company?
Without the corps de ballet, each ballet would be a series of variations and pas de deux—not whole stories, but mere episodes of relationships. We represent a group of characters that, stewed together, form the flavor of the company. The soloists and principals are the icing and firecrackers on the cake, which glimmers atop the structure and foundation of the corps.
Who makes up the women’s corps at Staatsballett Berlin?
We’re 24 women from all different countries, backgrounds and experiences. In rehearsals and performances, we work to incorporate each girl’s strengths to create one illustrious heartbeat. We dance and work together as a family and nurture each other in difficult moments.
What’s your typical day like?
We usually have class from 10:30 to 11:45 every morning. I get there early to have a full hour to warm up. Then we rehearse from 12 to 2:00, which is either a series of small rehearsals or whole acts of ballets. After a midday break, we have more rehearsals from 2:45 to 6:15. On an average day, without a performance, I work about eight hours.
How do you prepare for performances?
I like to get to the theater early so I can get into character with hair and makeup first, give myself barre and practice the key steps. If we’re doing Swan Lake, I head down to watch the entrance of Odette, which always instills the beauty of the story within me. Then it’s time to jump around and get pumped up to go onstage and let the music take me into the story.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a corps dancer?
The most challenging part for me is to not feel invisible. To find my way of standing out without sticking out. It’s difficult not to feel lost at times. Also, we’re greatly responsible for ourselves in so many ways. No one is going to take the time to coach each individual corps member on what isn't looking the best. Plus, your contribution to the group as a whole is crucial—if you are late, out of line or make a mistake, it can have a domino effect. It’s a lot of responsibility.
You often have to pose onstage for long periods of time while the principals are dancing. What do you think about when you're waiting for your turn to dance?
One of the hardest parts of being in the corps de ballet is standing perfectly still. We’re acting as decoration to the soloists while we’re dripping sweat and out of breath. I usually have to sing the music in my head to stop the muscle cramps and discomfort from taking over. In the worst moments, when I think, “I can't hold it any more,” that’s when I have to dig deep inside and fight. But these are the moments of sacrifice that we give for the magical moments of dancing.
What is the most difficult ballet you've danced, and why?
Some ballets are exhausting because you don't stop dancing and have lots of quick changes, like Boris Eifman's Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake is stressful because of all the standing still and technicality and pointework. But La Bayadère is the most challenging for me because it targets my weaknesses. The Shades scene pushes my flexibility and extensions to the maximum, and any wobbling is instantly obvious. The pressure of coming down a 30-foot ramp and doing 20-something arabesques simultaneously with the girls in front of you is frightening—all my nerves are on edge until the adagio section is over.
What do you enjoy most about dancing in the corps de ballet?
When you watch a corps de ballet performing completely synchronized, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Touching people with how we create magical artwork with our bodies and move as one—this is why I love my job. It’s the reward for all our hard work.
Amanda Assucena, Joffrey Ballet
Not many first-year company members get the chance to perform a principal role, let alone two—but last season, the Joffrey Ballet's Amanda Assucena did just that. In addition to dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the company's production of The Nutcracker, Assucena, then 19, was cast as the lead in Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet. “Dancing Juliet was something that I never expected my first year as a professional," she says.
Trained in her native Brazil, Assucena moved to the U.S. and spent four years at The Harid Conservatory before joining the trainee program at the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. After just one year, she received a company contract. With out-of-this-world extensions, spot-on technique and a delicate softness to her movement, it's easy to see why she's getting noticed. But it's her ability to embody characters honestly that sets her apart. With Joffrey's wide-ranging rep, Assucena hopes to absorb as much as she can from her fellow company members.
Now that Juliet and Sugar Plum are under her belt, what does she hope for next? “One of my dream roles is Giselle," she says. “After the Rain, Infra and Chroma are obsessions of mine, too." —Margaret Hermanson
Nicole Padilla, Sarasota Ballet
Before joining Sarasota Ballet, Nicole Padilla had barely heard of Frederick Ashton. But under directors Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri—who have introduced a dozen of the British choreographer's works to the repertoire—Padilla has become not only an Ashton aficionado, but an accomplished interpreter of his work. During the company's recent Sir Frederick Ashton Festival, she triumphed in the peppy Elaine Fifield role in Birthday Offering, flawlessly executed the fouettés of the Blue Girl in Les Patineurs and showed off her range in both the polka solo and the “Scotch Rhapsody" in Façade.
The 26-year-old Texas native spent two years at the University of Oklahoma and another at the Joffrey Ballet School before joining Dayton Ballet. She came to Sarasota Ballet in 2011, but sat out most of her second season with a back injury. After recovering, she quickly made headway, dancing in the company's performances of Les Patineurs at the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival last June (and drawing praise from several critics). “I'm more the athletic, jumping, turning type," she admits. Her dream role? “Kitri from Don Q," she says. “I'm just not a swan."
Padilla, who married in June, also teaches at the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance, and is pursuing an elementary education degree at the University of South Florida. “How do I do it all?" she asks. “I have no idea." —Carrie Seidman
Kathryn Hosier, National Ballet of Canada
Kathryn Hosier's long legs, trousered in black, shimmer under a hyper-articulated torso as she executes the fast, angular, punctuated arm movements of Marco Goecke's reimagined version of Le Spectre de la Rose. This is the same dancer who in pure classical mode can portray a Sleeping Beauty fairy or Swan Lake Spanish princess.
“What I love about the National Ballet is the sheer range of repertoire," says 23-year-old Hosier, thrilled that Goecke plucked her from the corps to dance the female lead in the North American premiere of Spectre in May. “It was a huge technical challenge, but also a big career break."
Born and initially trained in Champaign, Illinois, Hosier spent three finishing years at Canada's National Ballet School. Hired into the company as an apprentice in 2009, she was taken into the corps within six months. While competition for roles is always intense, last year Hosier was center stage in No. 24, an ultra-physical duet choreographed by company member Guillaume Côté.
Hosier has no illusions about the waiting game that's often a corps member's lot. Still, landing an opening night lead has whetted her appetite. “Once you get a taste, you want more and more and more." —Michael Crabb
Julia Rowe, San Francisco Ballet
There's a breezy sweetness to Julia Rowe's peasant pas de cinq variation in San Francisco Ballet's Giselle. Nothing in the intricate steps looks calculated and yet, there's a world of thoughtfulness behind the ease.
“So much of that variation for me is about finding nuances in the music and the phrasing," she says. “But there's also discovering more in what you can bring besides just steps. In order for Giselle's descent into madness to be heartbreaking, there has to be an overwhelming sense of joy beforehand."
A native of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, Rowe trained for 11 years at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In 2005, she attended SFB's summer program because it was the home of one of her idols, Tina LeBlanc, and by 2007 had enrolled in the school year-round. Afterwards she joined Oregon Ballet Theatre, where she was nominated for a Princess Grace Award in 2010. Five years later, however, she came back to SFB, attracted by the diverse repertoire and the artists with whom she'd get to work.
Since then she's charmed audiences with her fluid musicality and graceful épaulement, moving easily between the classicism of Giselle, the precision of Mark Morris' Maelstrom and the dazzle of Liam Scarlett's Hummingbird.
“It's intimidating, exciting and incredibly artistically fulfilling for me to be in this kind of environment," she says. “There's always something new and challenging." —Mary Ellen Hunt
Emily Bowen, Houston Ballet
Watching Houston Ballet's petite Emily Bowen barrel downstage in a whirl of pirouettes, it's no wonder that artistic director Stanton Welch selected her as the “flute" for his recent The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. She excels at Welch's flair for flash, but never loses her razor-sharp punctuation. “Stanton tends to cast me in roles that test my ability to move lightning fast and be technically precise—all while covering large amounts of space," says Bowen.
Bowen trained under Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance and at Houston Ballet Academy, where she competed in the Prix de Lausanne before joining the company in 2006.
A skilled chameleon, she can transition between a vintage, china-doll ballerina excelling in old-school delicacy one minute and a pocket-sized ball of fire in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude the next. Her extensive rep includes lead roles such as Lise in La Fille mal gardée and the pas de deux in “Rubies."
Next season, Bowen looks forward to reprising Edwaard Liang's Murmuration. “I was a part of the world premiere last season, and the response was so overwhelming," she says. “It holds a very special place in my heart." —Nancy Wozny
Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara, New York City Ballet
It's not often that a corps member nabs your attention when there are principals onstage at New York City Ballet. But Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara has been stealing the spotlight since she joined the company as an apprentice in 2011. Last season, she maneuvered effortlessly through George Balanchine's Raymonda Variations, crisply elegant despite her long limbs. Even standing in a row of dancers framing the stage, a simple gesture of her arm can be arresting—as if the music plays from her port de bras.
Raised in Maryland, 20-year-old Dutton-O'Hara trained at the Frederick School of Classical Ballet. A summer intensive at the School of American Ballet in 2007 led to her staying on year-round. “NYCB had always been my dream," she says.
Since joining the company, Dutton-O'Hara has been pursuing an undergraduate degree at nearby Fordham University, taking classes in the morning before company class. (She wants to major in either math or economics.) “I knew if I took a break from my education, I wouldn't go back," she says.
Dutton-O'Hara's main focus, though, remains dancing, hoping to someday perform the leads in Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements. She's already begun to show the subtlety of phrasing that sets dancers apart in NYCB's repertoire. Her secret? “Remember to dance for you. I think that's most rewarding for the audience, as well." —Shannon Woods
Irlan Silva, Boston Ballet
Watching Irlan Silva dance, you see a prince: jumps soaring with regal abandon, innate noble carriage, gorgeous feet and extensions. But what you won't see is the poverty-stricken favela where the 24-year-old grew up in Rio de Janeiro, or the years of scholarships, training and ballet competitions that fueled his rise. “I'm always thinking about what I passed through to get here," he says. “I have to keep pushing myself to be one of the best."
At 10, Silva started out learning to tap. But his natural flexibility and coordination led to a jazz scholarship at the Centro de Dança Rio. When his teacher encouraged him to try classical ballet, he admitted he'd never seen it before. “We didn't have access to theaters or culture," he says, so she took him to see a performance. “I was so impressed. I thought, 'Yes! I want to do that!' "
Hard training and competitions followed. At 17, he won Best Contemporary Dancer at Youth America Grand Prix. That same year, his performance at Prix de Lausanne led him to a contract with American Ballet Theatre II. There, his inspiring story was documented in the 2009 film Only When I Dance.
Silva joined Boston Ballet in 2011, attracted to its combination of classical and contemporary work. “I feel more free doing contemporary," he says, although his goal is to excel at both. So far, he is excelling across the board; this spring, Silva danced his first principal role in Harald Lander's Etudes.
When it comes to the future, Silva knows what he wants. “My dream is to be a principal dancer with Boston Ballet," he says. If this past season is any measure, he is well on his way. —Ashley Rivers
Amanda Assucena in Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet (photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy Joffrey Ballet)
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Ask Keenan McLaren how she felt at the start of her first season with Dayton Ballet in 2005, and she’ll have one word for you: terrified. “I was youngest person in the company, and I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “But I reminded myself that I have a certain level of training, and I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think that I was capable.” After landing a job in a company, adjusting to life in the corps can be daunting for any new professional. We asked three recently hired dancers for advice for ensuring a successful first year.
During the first weeks of Emily Bowen’s contract with Houston Ballet, which began in June 2006, she was
nervous that she would accidentally offend dancers ranked above her. She learned the ropes by befriending a
principal dancer. “She told me who stood where, who went in what group and who to probably stay away from,” says Bowen. Overall, though, she adds, “I expected it to be a little more cut-throat. But if the other dancers seem friendly, you have the chance to have someone you can go to who has gone through the same thing.”
While you shake those initial nerves, be ready to hit the ground running. “At beginning of the season, it was like being shot out of a cannon,” says Adrian Fry, a first-year dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre who studied with Omaha Theater Ballet School and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “Within the first 10 days, we were learning six different pieces because of the time that certain repetiteurs could be there. I took it in stride and was really excited to start working.”
McLaren was surprised by the sheer amount of choreography she was expected to learn in her first year at Dayton. “Often when a new company member is primarily performing corps work, they’ll be asked to understudy leads—sometimes more than one! This is definitely a challenge, because you are learning double the choreography and the responsibility is huge,” says McLaren. “You are expected to know the role and be able to go in at a moment’s notice, even if someone is just out sick. It can be a wonderful opportunity if you do get the chance to
go in, because your director gets to see you in a different light.”
Maintaining your physical endurance throughout a full day of company class, rehearsal and even an evening
performance is key. “I think because there’s more emphasis on rehearsal, you have to save your energy source,” says Fry. “We work really hard in class, but we also know that we need to keep our tanks filled up throughout the day, because there are times when we work from 10 to 5:30 straight.” Cardio and weight training at a local gym prior to her start with the company helped McLaren survive long rehearsal days. “If you cross-train, your stamina will just fly through the roof, and that makes those long days so much easier,” she says.
Also expect to make independent practice a personal priority. “When you have rehearsals as a company member, it’s not to go over what you learned in the last one,” says Bowen, who studied previously at North Carolina School of the Arts and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “You’re already expected to remember everything so you can keep learning more choreography. So you have to take time out of your personal life to come to the studio and work on things. That’s how you get promoted and how you get good roles, and then the artistic directors and the ballet mistresses and masters can trust you.”
The transition from being a senior student at your dance school—where your solo work and individual talents were
likely recognized—to becoming a team player in the corps also requires a great deal of focus. “In class, you’re working on your individual needs and focusing on what you need to improve as a dancer. When you’re in the corps, it’s not about you at all,” says McLaren, who studied at Boston Ballet School and danced with Ballet Austin II.
Instead of aiming for your highest extension, your positions must exactly match those of your fellow dancers. Yet, she says, “It’s a very rewarding experience, because when everyone is really feeling together, there’s a certain energy that flows through the group, and it’s a very different feeling than doing 32 fouettés.”
Like most students, Bowen grew accustomed to praise and acknowledgement from her teachers, and the absence of that in company life was an unexpected adjustment. “In a company, if you do something well, you don’t hear about it; you usually hear about it if you do something wrong,” she says. “When you see you’re not getting all of the feedback you want, it can be discouraging, but it’s actually a good thing.”
Your first company season brings the chance to develop your own sense of artistry beyond what you may have been able to accomplish as a student. “I see this year as bridging the gap between dancer and artist,” says Fry. “When you’re in a really heavy professional training program... I just felt like I was cultivating my technique and getting on my leg and working on my jumps. It was really athletic... but I didn’t feel like an artist.”
Bowen agrees. “Artistry is everything. It helps more if you just start thinking about artistry in your last year in school, because once you get in a company, you’re expected to already have all the technique and start to show yourself in your dancing,” she says. “I wish someone had told me that.”
I went to see NYCB again on Saturday, and was treated to another performance of Balanchine's Le Tombeau de Couperin, which is a vehicle for the company's very young, very hungry corps de ballet. I saw this piece for the first time a couple of weeks ago (on the same program as Episodes), and I enjoyed it just as much. It's Balanchine's architectural sensibility at its finest--marvelously kaleidoscopic patterns emerge and dissolve constantly, as the eight men and eight women constantly rearrange themselves and bow to each other, echoing court dances of the past. The ballet also incorporates Balanchine's trademark fearless use of pedestrian gestures, like simple walks and skips, to get his dancers from one place to another. I say fearless, because I think few choreographers would be confident enough to just have their dancers walk around the stage.
But Le Tombeau de Couperin is also singular in that there are no solos, and it is not in any way a vehicle for a single ballerina. It is a present for City Ballet's corps, who always make up the cast, and a way for them to really show off their Balanchine training in the precision and quickness of their movements. Their unbridled joy in being onstage is also apparent--I almost never see such happy smiles when I watch the soloists and principals perform. These dancers are just so happy to be onstage, and are clearly hungry for more opportunities like this. It's also nice to see the corps being appreciated, as they do so much work in other Balanchine ballets, and usually only get one or two quick bows before the principals come out for their bows and curtain calls. At the first performance I saw, the dancers got two curtain calls, and it was wonderful to see them soaking up the applause they well deserved.
I'd like to see these talented young dancers get more opportunities to shine as a group.
Pointe is on the hunt: We're searching companies across the globe for today's most promising corps de ballet dancers—and we want your input! Which up-and-comers do you think are destined for stardom? Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a list in the comments here or on Facebook, or shoot us a Tweet. We'll read every nomination to decide who to include in an exclusive feature in Pointe's June/July issue. If we like your idea, you just might see it come to life in our pages.