Just for fun
Shelby Williams as her alter ego, Biscuit Ballerina. Photo by Nicha Rodbon, Courtesy Williams.

Last fall, Instagram's dance community blew up when an account titled Biscuit Ballerina started posting videos of an anonymous dancer doing laughably bad ballet. With a look of fierce determination, she would awkwardly make her way through well-known variations, stumbling over her pointe shoes. Comments ranged from hilarity to criticism to confusion: Who was this dancer?

The answer is Shelby Williams, a soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Williams didn't become serious about ballet until age 11. At 15 she left home to train year-round at The Washington School of Ballet, and a year later transferred to the Houston Ballet Academy, where she quickly entered Houston Ballet II. As a student, Williams often felt crippled by self-criticism. "I was doing something I was passionate about every day, but I hated it," she says. Eventually she went to a sports psychologist who helped her learn how to enjoy the process and not take herself too seriously. After class, instead of feeling ashamed by the mistakes she'd made, Williams started to overexaggerate what she'd done, making herself and her classmates laugh.

Shelby Williams. Photo by Kensilav Kanev/De-Da Productions, Courtesy Williams.

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Shelby Williams as her alter ego, Biscuit Ballerina. Photo by Nicha Rodbon, Courtesy Williams.

Last fall, Instagram's dance community blew up when an account titled Biscuit Ballerina started posting videos of an anonymous dancer doing laughably bad ballet. With a look of fierce determination, she would awkwardly make her way through well-known variations, stumbling over her pointe shoes. Comments ranged from hilarity to criticism to confusion: Who was this dancer?

The answer is Shelby Williams, a soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Williams didn't become serious about ballet until age 11. At 15 she left home to train year-round at The Washington School of Ballet, and a year later transferred to the Houston Ballet Academy, where she quickly entered Houston Ballet II. As a student, Williams often felt crippled by self-criticism. "I was doing something I was passionate about every day, but I hated it," she says. Eventually she went to a sports psychologist who helped her learn how to enjoy the process and not take herself too seriously. After class, instead of feeling ashamed by the mistakes she'd made, Williams started to overexaggerate what she'd done, making herself and her classmates laugh.

Shelby Williams as herself. Photo by Kensilav Kanev/De-Da Productions, Courtesy Williams.

Williams as Biscuit. Photo by Nicha Rodboon, Courtesy Williams.


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Just for fun
Gillian Murphy spent some time in Canada this summer. Image via Instagram @gillianemurphy

We'll admit it: As excited as we are for fall performance season to start, we are in deep, deep denial that the end of summer is in sight. And we're also experiencing some serious FOMO looking at the vacation photos flooding our Instagram feeds from some of our favorite dancers and choreographers. So where in the world do they go to unwind before gifting us with yet another season of incredible dance?

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Ballet Stars

Photography by Casey Herd

 

The gypsy goddess of contemporary ballet has found a home: Nederlands Dans Theater. But although the avant-garde company in The Hague seems like a natural fit for Drew Jacoby’s fierce style, she was rejected when she initially tried out for former artistic director Jim Vincent. “I’ve always been too tall for everything,” says Jacoby, who’s 5' 11". “Opportunities never fall into my lap. I’ve always had to push and search and try and fail until something works.” Those very qualities were what led current artistic director Paul Lightfoot to ask her to join. “Drew’s ambitious, and I love that,” says Lightfoot. “She works so hard that sometimes we even have to tell her, ‘Drew, enough!’ ”

Now that she’s joined the company, in stereotypical Dutch fashion, her day starts with a 10-minute bike ride to the studio. It’s a quieter lifestyle than what Jacoby was used to in New York. (She sees her husband, who’s still living there, every few weeks.) Her schedule mostly revolves around rehearsing, performing and keeping her body in shape—sometimes with twice-daily visits to the company’s physical therapist, a new luxury.

NDT has turned out to be exactly what she wanted. “Freelancing was kind of a lonely career,” she admits. Dancing for the many top choreographers who come to NDT has stretched her. She’s learned to speak and even sing onstage. She’s been forced to make her steps more specific, and to move with a softer quality. “I was used to having the freedom to dance however I felt like—which was always with full attack,” Jacoby says. “To be able to challenge myself in new styles, it’s exactly what I was craving. I knew in my gut this was something I had to try.”

Ballet Training
San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova in "Esmeralda." Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.

Interviews by Christopher Blank, Rosie Gaynor and Nancy Wozny

A firestorm of controversy over recent reviews that singled out dancers' bodies for criticism has raised the question of whether body type still matters in today's ballet world. Does ballet's identity rest on presenting a certain image of the ballerina? Pointe asked leading dancers and artistic directors what impact issues like height and weight have on their casting.

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Swans, pluck those feathers! Wilis, stow those veils! Dancers everywhere, update those personal websites! Embrace every challenge the dance world throws your way and look for a few more—your future may depend on it.


Such is the consensus of the distinguished array of dancers, company directors and teachers Pointe asked about the prospects for the ballerina in today’s highly competitive and information-saturated dance world. How is the pathway to success different from what it was a generation ago? What does it take to be a ballerina in the 21st century?


First, let’s define our terms. Nobody does that better than Ontario-born Karen Kain, who joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969, rapidly advanced to principal dancer, retired from the stage with laurels in 1997, and eight years later, became NBC’s artistic director.


“Some people think anyone who puts on a pointe shoe is a ballerina,” says Kain. “But when I use the term, I’m thinking of someone who has extraordinary individuality, a hugely refined and articulate body, humility, musicality, the strength and stamina of a major athlete, and the histrionic ability of a major actor. On top of that, a ballerina needs an attribute that is more difficult to describe. It’s a commitment and passion for the artform, a capacity to work harder than most human beings, the concentration to put aside other things.”


Kain considers the demands made upon her own company typical of the global ballet scene. “Today, technique and stamina are pushed to the limits. It’s all much more demanding than it was for me. We only have the budget for five principal women. So the really useful ballerinas in the 21st century will be more than great Giselles. They are here to dance a variety of different works.”


In some respects, Kain might be describing New York City Ballet’s much lauded principal Wendy Whelan, who, in her 25 years with the company, has gradually augmented her core Balanchine/Robbins repertoire. Her prescription for ballerina stardom?


“I think today that you’ve got to be open to all the languages thrown at you by newer choreographers,” says Whelan. Her resumé now includes dances by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Dove, Tharp and Wheeldon. “Their work isn’t necessarily ballet-based, but they want you to come up with a new way of doing a modern step in pointe shoes. We don’t even have a word for these steps; because they’re not in a book, you must do the exploring.


“I recall that when we were rehearsing Russian Seasons, Ratmansky told me not to be afraid to be melodramatic,” Whelan continues. “I didn’t do that sort of thing, so he really challenged me. It makes you trust your creativity a bit more; self-knowledge always adds to the ballets we know.”


Diversity is also the key to the success of the Kirov Ballet’s bewitching Diana Vishneva. Few ballerinas have evolved from their training as much as this illustrious graduate of the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.


“Of course, Vaganova was great,” Vishneva says. “But the Western school has been more important in forming my career. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Still, I will never forget my roots in Russia.” Which may explain why she dispatches Kitri with the same flair with which she delivers Balanchine’s “Rubies” or a creation by Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton.


Vishneva is a child of the electronic age. She maintains a website (www.dianavishneva.ru) and operates a chat room in which she “always” responds to her admirers’ questions. You can catch many of Vishneva’s performances online and she notes that they inspire fans to buy tickets for her theatrical appearances.


Drew Jacoby’s history differs significantly from Vishneva’s. Her elongated line and charisma first attracted attention in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She now dances with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and is currently guesting with the Dutch National Ballet. She offers some refreshing insights on the contemporary ballerina.


“What a great dancer needs now is zero insecurity,” Jacoby says. “Those I enjoy watching make you believe them because they are not afraid. They convince you that what they are doing is important. They embody coolness,” she says, and some would find it an apt description of her own style. “I don’t mean cocky virtuosity,” she adds, “I just mean being comfortable in your own skin. I guess what is really required is intelligence and character—on top of the obvious technical facility. Today’s ballerina needs a grasp of the weight of the art.”


There is art, and then, there is art. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet since 2007, measures greatness in a ballerina by the artistic standards propounded by his company’s founder. “When Robert Joffrey started it all, he wanted really strong, well-trained, fully committed women. His legacy is worth keeping alive. These are the dancers who will go to the end of their profession to find out what it means to immerse yourself in a role. It’s an American aesthetic for an American company.”


Veteran teacher David Howard takes a different view, finding the studied eclecticism of most repertoires and the anonymity of technically superior dancing are factors hindering distinction. He can’t resist reminiscing about his era at The Royal Ballet, when giants like Margot Fonteyn bouréed across the boards. He recalls the Bolshoi’s brilliant, rebellious Maya Plisetskaya, who fought against the conventions of the Soviet system. He cites France’s unclassifiable and uncompromising Sylvie Guillem. He charges artistic directors with finding their heirs.


“We will have ballerinas if dancers like this come along and companies notice them,” says Howard. “Because they’re a headache, companies don’t promote them, but they should. A great and distinctive ballerina like Maya Plisetskaya had a different kind of energy; she would be fired today.


“But,” Howard continues, “dancers are still inspired and still get out there and try their very best. And through them, the artform will change. In a way, I’m optimistic.”

Allan Ulrich is chief critic for voiceofdance.com, and contributes to a variety of American and international publications.

"Everyone involved in dance is a piece of a big puzzle,” says Samantha Klanac of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. “The more people you can establish a relationship with, the better that puzzle fits together. Obviously, talent is a key factor in landing a job. But the most successful dancers I know are very personable and make an effort beyond just being technically proficient.”


Networking—the cultivation of relationships to help advance one’s career—is practiced in nearly every profession, ballet included. In fact, some dancers argue that it’s almost as valuable as talent in generating new opportunities. Increasing your connections and exposure within the dance community can help you land a job, switch companies or transition to a new career, to name just a few benefits.

 

Take freelance dancer Drew Jacoby. She arrived in New York City two years ago with few contacts but plenty of ambition. When she learned that choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was founding Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, she e-mailed him a resumé and a link to her website. Although Wheeldon had never met her, he was impressed enough with what he saw to invite her to take class with him. Afterwards, he offered encouraging words about Jacoby’s prospects for dancing with his company.


But over the next six months, Jacoby e-mailed Wheeldon five times without receiving a response. Just as she was about to abandon hope, her phone rang and she was offered a job with Morphoses. “It’s about being exposed to people and building genuine relationships,” says Jacoby. “The more open you are, the more likely you’re going to open those connections.”


Jacoby isn’t shy about networking. If she wants to make a living as a freelance dancer, she can’t be. “You have to put yourself out there and even contact people out of the blue. I’m not afraid to either not get called back or hear, ‘You’re not right for this.’ ”

Not all dancers are comfortable with networking, however. Accustomed to letting their talent speak for itself, they feel awkward promoting themselves. If the prospect seems daunting, focus on the potential payoff.


When you’re just launching your career, nurture the contacts you’ve made as a student—your teachers, for example, and older students who’ve graduated to professional careers. Ask to meet outside of class to talk about your goals. Be up front: Let them know the type of opportunity you’re seeking. Remember, they have their own network of associates they can contact on your behalf.


Don’t be timid about creating new contacts. Chat with other dancers you meet at open classes—they might be able to recommend you for an opportunity at their company. Introduce yourself to the choreographer after a master class or workshop to let him or her know you enjoy their work.


“I expect dancers to keep in touch—and if this is somewhere they want to be, they will,” says Dwight Rhoden, co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. When Rhoden needed to fill three spots this season due to injury, he called three dancers who’d steadily maintained contact with him.


 “You don’t want to bombard someone and become a nuisance,” Rhoden says, “but I certainly think it’s appropriate to let them know that you’re still around and looking for work.”


Rhoden recommends that dancers use e-mail for updates and follow up with face time. “You can post your work on a website and invite someone to see what you’ve done. You can also let them know if you’re performing in the area,” he says. If you want to work with a particular company, “Ask if you can take company class from time to time so you stay on the radar,” Rhoden advises. “Being able to network that way is productive because the director sees you and sees your interest.”


No matter what stage you are at in your career, it can be beneficial to keep ties with dancers from your past. Elizabeth McGrath, a demi-soloist with Ballet West, stays in touch with the teachers and guest teachers at the ballet studio where she trained. “I’m very happy with my job, but I know that, if I wanted to guest or audition somewhere, I could call some of these connections and they would help me with the process.”


You should also view other dancers and teachers you’ve met at open classes, summer intensives and competitions as part of your network. Keep them updated on your progress through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, as well as e-mail. Even if these contacts don’t have a direct impact on your career, their camaraderie can provide valuable insight. “I have friends from summer programs who have danced in major companies, smaller companies and in Europe,” Klanac says. “It’s helpful to hear about their experiences so I can reevaluate my own.”
Klanac’s attitude is that all of the contacts she makes—even those not directly tied to dance—could help her in some way. As proof, she points to a member of her company’s board who got her an appointment with a prominent physician when she suffered a back injury.


“It’s a small world, and one relationship bleeds into another. Networking is not something I consciously think about, but it works best when it’s a natural process and a natural relationship. I’ve gotten my job because I’ve been myself. If they want to work with you, they’ll see that.”

A former newspaper reporter, Nicole Peradotto is a longtime arts writer who lives in upstate New York.

This interview appeared in the February 6 Pointe e-newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.

 

Many ballet fans were surprised when longtime freelance star Drew Jacoby decided to join Nederlands Dans Theater last year. But she'll be beamed back to U.S. audiences next month, when Emerging Pictures broadcasts an NDT program featuring a new full-length work by Crystal Pite in movie theaters nationwide. Pointe's e-news spoke to Jacoby about her overseas move and learning Pite's choreography.

Crystal Pite is known as a storyteller. Does this new piece tell a story?  

In a way, yes. It's based on the idea of the known and unknown universe--the opposing forces within it, and what we can and can't see. In the opening section, she plays with the rational and irrational parts of the brain, with majorettes to represent the rational side and clowns to represent the irrational side. Then, in the second part, there are dancers who are visible and shadow figures who are all in black. But I'm not doing it justice--she explains this all much better than I can.

The Emerging Pictures crew will be filming your opening-night show. How do you perform in a way that's appropriate for both the audience in the theater and the broadcast audience? 

Yeah, and it's a world premiere, too! There'll be plenty of pressure. I guess I should probably try not to grimace or make strange faces, in case they go in for close-ups. But I think because it's such an epic evening and we all have so much responsibility, we're not going to have time to think about the cameras. And the choreography is going to sell itself on film--It's a natural program to broadcast, because of its theatricality, and because there's so much going on.

 

Why did you decide to join NDT? 
It wasn't planned. It sort of fell in my lap, which was strange, since my whole career has been me seeking out opportunities and forging my own way. But I had a gut feeling about it. I knew if I didn't try I'd always wonder. I'm still in a position where I want to learn, and that's hard when you're freelancing and working alone a lot. I also just wanted to focus on dancing. Freelancing was extremely fulfilling in one way, but I was spreading myself thin with the administrative work and the stress of it all; I was getting a little burned out. At NDT I can put all of my energy toward my art. And being around all these incredible dancers has made me hungry again. I feel at peace with the decision.

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