"They're breaking all my theories about not pushing dancers too soon," Kevin McKenzie, the usually cautious artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, said recently in his office near Union Square. He was referring to recently promoted soloists Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, 24 and 21, respectively. And he's not kidding. Hurlin and Bell are on the fast track, with role after role coming their way.
Precious Adams is sitting in a deck chair in the sunshine of London's Olympic Park. She's on a break from rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella with English National Ballet, where she's been polishing up her comic timing for the role of Sister Edwina (they're not "ugly" sisters in this production). "Working with Christopher Wheeldon is a massive tick on my bucket list," smiles the 24-year-old as she tucks into her lunch.
In Ballet West's company class at Salt Lake City's historic Capitol Theatre, demi-soloist Emily Neale stands poised in first position, her hair swirled into a slightly disheveled bun. In any other room, her 5' 8" frame would be a standout, but in this company—where the tallest woman is 6' 1"—her height is hardly something to note. Rather, it's her self-possession. As the dancers around her seek to impress on-looking artistic staff, 24-year-old Neale seems unfazed. Her épaulement breezes, her allégro soars and suspends, her technique is solid, and all the while, she is calm.
Her unflappability was built along a very patient path to Ballet West. While clearly talented, Neale struggled to find work for two years, enduring the pressures of rejection while waiting for the right stars to align. Yet she remained steadfast, and despite her difficult start, her timeline caught up with her talent once she landed at Ballet West. Since joining as a trainee in 2015, she's risen rapidly to demi-soloist. In fact, it's the fastest climb the company has seen since principal Beckanne Sisk.
The third movement of Balanchine's Symphony in C is designed to wow, but it's not often a dancer manages to bring unadulterated joy to its brutally difficult steps. Yet when The Royal Ballet's Marcelino Sambé ran onto the stage last fall, the bright, cheerful buoyancy of his first grand jeté drew a gasp from the British gentleman sitting behind me in the Royal Opera House's chic Grand Tier.
The stage isn't the only place where Sambé's infectious energy stands out. Time and again, company employees crack a smile at the mention of his name; a stage door attendant perks up when calling him over and chats animatedly about his performances. "He basically cheers up the whole Royal Ballet," says principal Francesca Hayward, a frequent partner of Sambé's. "He's one of those: Sunshine comes with him," Kevin O'Hare, the director of The Royal Ballet, concurs. "He's just a great, positive influence in the room and in the building."
When Natasha Sheehan debuted in The Sleeping Beauty's Bluebird pas de deux last season, she enchanted the San Francisco Ballet audience with her filigree footwork, elegant lines and effortless charisma. It was a big moment for the then-19-year-old, who was just beginning her second year in the corps, but it wasn't her first—Sheehan has been in the spotlight since she was a 16-year-old trainee in the company school.
That's when SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson gave her the lead in his Bartók Divertimento for the 2016 season gala, an evening featuring the company's biggest stars. Before that she was a cygnet in Swan Lake. "It felt like a dream," Sheehan says of getting featured roles so early. But it was also high-stakes. "During the 'Little Swans,' I could see Helgi watching me in the wings," she recalls vividly. "It was like, 'This is my one chance. I have to do this right.' "
Christine Shevchenko and Devon Teuscher have spent practically half their lives with each other. Both dancers joined American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company in 2006. The following year, they graduated into the main troupe as apprentices, again together. They've sat next to each other in every dressing room they've ever occupied, and shared hotel rooms on the road. And in September 2017, at the age of 28, they became the company's two youngest female principal dancers—on the same day. If they weren't such good friends, they would probably be sick of each other.
On a slushy March morning in New York City, Tulsa Ballet's Jennifer Grace took warm-up class onstage at The Joyce Theater, gearing up for the company's second day on tour. Even in a relaxed atmosphere, Grace epitomizes her name. In adagio, her arms move as if through warmed honey, swaying richly though never late. As she piqués into an attitude pirouette, her leg soars high, scooping air like a wing.
Grace feels quite at home in roles like Cinderella's Fairy Godmother; Glinda, in Edwaard Liang's Dorothy and the Prince of Oz; and the Lilac Fairy, in The Sleeping Beauty. "I fairy-godmother a lot," she jokes. It's no wonder. Her stature (at 5' 5", she's one of the tallest women in the company) and singing movement quality cast a commanding aura. "Honestly, it's one of my favorite things," she says of dancing regal, feminine roles. "I get to move scenery around and make love stories come true."
"I'm very cautious by nature," Rachel Hutsell says over herbal tea at Lincoln Center between rehearsals. You wouldn't think so from the way she moves onstage or in the studio. In fact, one of the most noticeable characteristics of Hutsell's dancing is boldness, a result of the intelligence and intention with which she executes each step. (What she calls caution is closer to what most people see as preparedness.) She doesn't approximate—she moves simply and fully, with total confidence. That quality hasn't gone unnoticed.
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If you are a dance lover in South Korea, EunWon Lee is a household name. The delicate ballerina and former principal at the Korean National Ballet danced every major classical role to critical acclaim, including Odette/Odile, Giselle, Kitri, Nikiya and Gamzatti. Then, at the peak of her career, Lee left it all behind.
In 2016, she moved to Washington, DC, to join The Washington Ballet. The company of 26 is unranked, making Lee simply a dancer—not a soloist, not a principal and not a star, like she was back home.
"I try to challenge myself, and always I had the urge to widen my experience and continue to improve," she says one blustery winter day after company class, still glowing from the exertion of honing, stretching and strengthening. "When I had a chance to work with Julie Kent, I didn't hesitate."
Visit a New York City Ballet rehearsal on any given day and you may find an unlikely guest named Theo, a 3-year-old Shiba Inu with wolf-like eyes and a teddy bear coat who has become something of an NYCB mascot. He tends to sit patiently off to the side, lost in his own thoughts, while his owner, the captivating 24-year-old soloist Taylor Stanley, concentrates in the center of the studio, displaying his usual discipline and quiet focus.
“I bring him everywhere I go," says Stanley. And like his canine companion, Stanley is a popular presence. “He brings a ray of sunshine into our workspace," says fellow soloist Erica Pereira. “He's a very good person on the inside and people feed off of good energy." But that cool demeanor belies a high-voltage internal spark. “When he dances he eats up the stage," says principal Robert Fairchild. Indeed it's Stanley's unique ability to combine power and passion with ease and humility that has made him a magnetic presence onstage and one of the company's breakout talents.
Sharing a moment of camaraderie in Justin Peck's "Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Ascending the ranks to "ballerina" status at American Ballet Theatre comprises the stuff of dreams for many dancers. Since its inception in 2003, ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School has been steadily molding students who graduate into the company. But within the last two decades, only several women have successfully journeyed from the ABT Studio Company to star. Three ballerinas emblematic of that distinction take a particular pride in being homegrown: Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston and soloist Sarah Lane.
Along the way, they have reaped sublime rewards, peppered with self-doubt, will power, patience, corps de ballet fatigue and a firm focus on their goals. While ABT regularly imports international guest stars for its spring Met season—a source of frustration for some dancers—Seo, Boylston and Lane have carved out a place for themselves in the company and in the hearts of their audience.
Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's artist in residence, has championed their talents; all three will dance Aurora in his acclaimed new production of The Sleeping Beauty in June. And with the retirement this season of three ballerinas crucial to ABT's identity—Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes—these younger dancers now take center stage, becoming role models for the next generation.
This is Pointe's February/March 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
It's 10 am on a cool fall morning in a Royal Danish Ballet studio, and only one dancer is wearing pointe shoes at the barre as company class starts: Ida Praetorius. The 20-year-old performs tiny, fast ronds de jambe and expansive fondus with rapt, relentless dedication. At the end, barely pausing for breath, she squeezes a few more minutes in the studio and throws herself full-out into Balanchine's fouettés for Dewdrop, which she will dance in the company's upcoming production of his Nutcracker. It's October and the rehearsals are still some time away, but she is visibly itching to tackle the role.