Ballet Stars
Gianna Reisen in rehearsal with NYCB corps de ballet dancer Ghaleb Kayali. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

This Thursday marks New York City Ballet's annual Fall Gala. Spearheaded by actress and NYCB board member Sarah Jessica Parker, this glamorous event unites the worlds of ballet and fashion by partnering choreographers with top designers to collaborate on new works. This year, alongside premieres by NYCB company members/choreographers Lauren Lovette, Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher, 18-year old School of American Ballet alumna Gianna Reisen will present her first work for the stage at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater.

NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins noticed Reisen's work at SAB's Student Choreography Workshop and invited her to create a piece for The New York Choreographic Institute in 2016 before offering her the Fall Gala commission. This opportunity came as part of a whirlwind year for Reisen; after finishing her studies at SAB she was offered an apprenticeship at Dresden Semperoper Ballett late last spring. Reisen spent only three weeks getting settled in Germany before returning to NYC in late August to start rehearsals for the gala.

We caught up with Reisen to hear what it's been like to work alongside such high-caliber artists and to get the inside scoop on her premiere.

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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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Sarah Hay photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's October/November 2015 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

On the Starz television series “Flesh and Bone," Sarah Hay plays Claire, a troubled young dancer getting her first big break in a New York City ballet company. With faraway eyes, she listens to music on a dreary train, escaping some unknown horror at home to attend an audition in the big city. Her hands move expertly through a variation as if in prayer. But when her phone rings during her first company class, she finds herself the focus of ridicule. Forced to perform the adagio by herself in front of the company, she sails through it with sharp technique and emotional intensity, making it clear to the show's characters that Claire is a dance genius.

Though “Flesh and Bone" is obviously fictional, Hay's natural acting ability comes across as finely crafted as her dancing. It's hard not to imagine that Hay had plenty of source material from her own life to draw on for the role. After a slow career start and battles with intense anxiety and body issues, Hay is now thriving at Dresden Semperoper Ballett as a second soloist. Her extreme vulnerability and emotional honesty, developed after years spent struggling at the bottom of companies, punctuate her highly technical dancing and make her performances on stage and screen so compelling. Now, Hay is coming into her own in front of an audience numbering into the millions, and her future is looking bright.


Hay as Marie in Aaron S. Watkin's "The Nutcracker." Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Hay.

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Courtney Richardson with Fabien Voranger in David Dawson's Tristan + Isolde. Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Dresden Semperoper Ballett.

At Dresden's Semperoper, one of Europe's finest opera houses, the curtain comes down on the premiere of David Dawson's Tristan + Isolde. When Courtney Richardson, as Isolde, steps forward to take her bow, the applause rises to a crescendo. The ballet had found its heart in her first solo, expressed in powerful, neoclassical lines suffused with passion. Tristan marked her first full-evening creation in Dresden and the culmination of a long journey from Detroit.

“When we discussed Tristan," Dawson remembers, “I realized immediately that Courtney would be my Isolde. She's a stunning woman, a very real person with an incredible amount of depth, emotion and artistic vision. And she has an amazing sense of coordination and musicality." It's these qualities that have made Richardson something of a muse for Dawson, a collaborative relationship that eventually brought her to Dresden.

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Watkin leading rehearsal at Dresden Semperoper Ballett. Costin Radu, Courtesy Semperoper.

Every once in a while, a ballet company will come out of left field and reinvent itself in a matter of years. Until Aaron S. Watkin took over as artistic director in 2006, Dresden's Semperoper Ballett was mainly known as a midsize classical hub. As its dancers took to the stage last February in William Forsythe's newly arranged Neue Suite, however, their energy signaled a hungry, fierce and disciplined troupe. Couple after couple put on a display of speed and precision, conjuring feats of articulation as if to the manner born.

Under Watkin, the Semperoper Ballett has fast developed a voice of its own within the well-funded German state theater system, transforming into a modern neoclassical ensemble with a precious calling card: its association with Forsythe. Inspired and shaped by his repertoire, the Semperoper has stressed individuality and creativity, attracting choreographers such as popular Forsythe alum David Dawson—and a slew of dancers ready for prime time, including Sarah Hay, the star of the new TV series “Flesh and Bone."

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Melissa Hamilton, a first soloist at The Royal Ballet, will join Semperoper Ballett in Dresden, Germany, for the 2015/16 season. Semperoper Ballett has been directed by Aaron S. Watkin since 2006, and the company has undergone major changes to its repertoire. Watkin remodeled the company to perform more contemporary works, and Hamilton—who boasts effortless technique and textbook facility—has become The Royal's go-to girl for contemporary and neoclassical choreography.

She'll join the company as a principal, which will likely give her the chance to experiment in lead roles she might not get at The Royal, as well as a chance to work with edgier and more experimental choreographers. Watkin also mentioned that he is looking forward to having Hamilton debut in new classical roles, as well.

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