The curtain falls, the costumes are packed away. Dancers say good-bye to the choreography, the adrenaline rush of being onstage and the special camaraderie of performing together. "You put your heart and soul into a show and then you're like, 'That's it?' " says Miami City Ballet principal Jeanette Delgado. "You hope you'll get to dance that piece again, but you can't know for sure."
On a crisp day in late October, the studio air is thick and hot as dozens of sweaty dancers finish up grand allégro at New York City Center. Despite the fact that many of them are jet-lagged, there is a palpable, positive energy throughout the studio. Teaching class is former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, which seems fitting. The dancers, culled from eight major companies around the world, are getting ready for opening night of Balanchine: The City Center Years, a five-day festival highlighting the choreographer George Balanchine's early works.
Patricia Delgado surprised her many fans last March when she announced that she'd be leaving Miami City Ballet after nearly 20 years to move to New York to be closer to her boyfriend, New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck. Though she took a risk stepping into the unknown without a sense of where her career would take her, it's paid off: this year we've seen Delgado pop up everywhere from Christopher Wheeldon's concert production of Brigadoon at New York City Center to dancing alongside Peck in a music video for the indie rock band The National.
Outside class and rehearsal, Jeanette Delgado sports a laid-back look. But she rarely goes without a pop of pattern or color—a boho touch inspired by her Miami roots. “Growing up here is a part of me," she says. “The weather, the lifestyle. I'm a mix of all that." Delgado's biggest fashion agenda is lengthening her petite 5' 2" frame: Pancaked shoes and full-length tights elongate her line inside the studio, while outside, high-waisted shorts give the illusion that she's all legs. Her secret to adding a few inches of height? She sometimes buys dresses that are too long and hides heels underneath.
Which role do you most identify with?
Kitri. She’s fun and daring—which is how I like to be onstage.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
When no one’s around, I go backstage and visualize the piece. Sometimes I even sneak in to do it the night before.
What part of your dancing do you most want to improve?
Lengthening my lines, especially when the choreography’s quick.
What was your worst onstage nightmare?
One Nutcracker performance, I didn’t realize I was cast as Marzipan lead and Doll. In the middle of Act 1, I was nowhere near ready when the stage manager came running at me screaming, ‘You’re supposed to be the Doll!’ Luckily, a girl who learned the role but wasn’t given a show was right there. She threw on the costume and got onstage in time. Afterwards, she gave me the biggest hug. She was so happy—and I was crying hysterically!
What’s the least glamorous part of being a ballet dancer?
After the performance, going home, taking a bath, soaking in a tub of ice.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Whole Foods sells this vegan oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that I warm up for 12 seconds in the microwave. After a weekend of performances, my boyfriend knows I want that cookie.
What about you would surprise strangers?
I’m kind of clumsy. I fall a lot.
If you weren’t a ballet dancer, what would you do?
I’ve always wanted to work for the United Nations. Maybe one day.
How has teaching at Miami City Ballet School helped your dancing?
I tend to get caught up in the little details—I want to be perfect. But when you teach 12- and 13-year-olds, you see their love and excitement just to dance. They help me remember why we do this.
What advice do you give to your students?
Write down your corrections, the things teachers say that inspire you. Because there are days when your body doesn’t feel like a dancer’s body. You don’t know where to pull from. So while I’m eating breakfast, I’ll read what people have told me over the years and it helps me get inspired.
Daily class may feel like the proverbial grind—like eating your vegetables before you get to the good stuff. But professionals know better: Without class, there is no good stuff. Below, six top dancers describe how they make daily class work for them.
Patricia and Jeanette Delgado, Miami City Ballet
As dancers, the Delgado sisters are like night and day. Jeanette is an athletic powerhouse; Patricia is delicate, romantic and lyrical.
But the two share a remarkably similar approach to daily class. Taught almost every day by Artistic Director Edward Villella, the “dancey” 10 am session is mandatory, they say, but that’s for the better. “It’s nice. It connects the company,” Jeanette explains. “You inspire each other.”
Each turns to Gyrokinesis and yoga to warm up, and has gradually learned to take class more thoughtfully and carefully to protect themselves from injury. They also both shed their leg warmers early on. “I make sure I take off all my junk,” Patricia says. “I know my feet are not as articulated as they could be when I can’t see them.”
Both say their goals in class are pegged to the season. “If it’s a light day,” Patricia says, “I try to push myself really hard, define my legs, do combinations more than once to get my heart rate going, get into shape, build stamina and strength.” Before a performance, they often work on role-specific technique issues. Jeanette focused on quick feet and light legs for a week in class before she performed Balanchine’s Square Dance. When there’s a matinee, Patricia likes to do each exercise in her character’s mind frame. “I take class as Juliet if we’re doing Romeo and Juliet,” she says.
Apparently unaffected by even a touch of sibling rivalry, each is quick to point out the other’s strong work ethic. But for all their likenesses, the two are not identical. Patricia likes to stand in the front, near Villella, where she can pick up the combinations and not be distracted. Jeanette’s favorite spot? Next to the piano. “Our pianist, Francisco, is very attentive,” she says. “He keeps you focused on the music. There’s so much to think about, sometimes you forget what’s most important—dancing to the music.”
Katita Waldo, San Francisco Ballet
When she first came to SFB, Katita Waldo was notorious for avoiding class. “I hated it!” she recalls. “I was lazy.”
Since then, her approach has changed dramatically. “I started to enjoy the process of checking in with my body every day,” she says. Now Waldo feels like she can hardly dance without taking class. “It’s like medicine,” she explains. “You take your medicine and then you’re prepared for the rest of the day.”
A fan of “bigger, fuller” movement, Waldo enjoys taking men’s class. She also only wears her pointe shoes for the first three or four exercises at the barre. “If you never wear anything but pointe shoes,” she says, “you never get used to dancing any other way. But I feel like beginning on pointe warms up my feet faster.” When Waldo knows she’ll be performing a piece that requires a specific skill, she uses class time to focus on that technique. To prepare for her debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons earlier this year, for example, during barre and center she worked on articulating her feet and moving with control—“not my forte.”
When Waldo was younger, class was mostly about showing the teacher what she could do. Now, it’s more personal. With maturity—and injuries—came “hyper” self-awareness and a desire to better educate herself. “Class is a constant exploration of how to use my muscles better and improve,” she says. “Constant.”
Irina Dvorovenko, American Ballet Theatre
ABT principal Irina Dvorovenko cannot overstate the importance of daily class. “Class is your alphabet,” she explains. “In ballet, we tell stories. Without the alphabet, you cannot tell a story.”
Dvorovenko tends to treat class like a mini-performance. When she was working on a new role in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante last May, she tweaked class combinations so that they echoed Balanchine’s choreography. “It’s like putting beads on a chain,” she says. “Each class makes a difference. You have a whole collection in the end.”
For feedback in class, she turns to husband and fellow ABT principal Maxim Beloserkovsky. Each critiques the other in Russian—which sometimes leads to animated in-class arguments. But in the end, Dvorovenko says, it’s for the best. “We need to keep an eye on each other,” she explains. “If somebody isn’t paying attention, you get dust on you.”
Ariana Lallone, Pacific Northwest Ballet
After 22 years at PNB, Ariana Lallone knows the importance of class, thanks to early teachers Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. And as long as she’s dancing, Lallone says, she needs guidance. “I still want to work on my pirouettes, fouettés, jumping or the way the feet are articulated—whatever the class is working on. I have to be able to grow and change,” she says.
Lallone, who arrives 45 minutes early to tape her toes and stretch, generally does the entire class on pointe, although she will sometimes do a few barre exercises in flat shoes to work through her feet. “When I came to PNB’s school a number of years ago, all of the classes were on pointe,” she says. “I adapted to that and have done it ever since.”
While her approach to class hasn’t changed since her student days, she’s learned what her body can take—when she can push through, and when she should rein herself in. “It’s important to know your limitations,” she says.
Xiao Nan Yu, The National Ballet of Canada
Unlike many dancers, Xiao Nan Yu never holds back in class to save energy—even if she’s rehearsing or performing later in the day. “I need to go full out,” she says. “I find the less I do in class, the less I do onstage.”
To wake up her core muscles, Yu begins her pre-class warm-up with the Pilates 100. She then works on turnout, loosens up her feet and, just before class, stretches her hamstrings, back and glutes. Occasionally she alters her routine if she’s working on something specific.
“There are things I work on in class all the time,” she says. “You know your weaknesses.” That’s not to say that she finds class dull. “Every day is a challenge. From the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes, you can always find a challenge for your body. That’s what makes class so interesting.”
Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University.
Even without knowing their last name, it’s easy to tell that Patricia and Jeanette Delgado are sisters. They share the same appealing verve, but the contents of the two Miami-born Miami City Ballet principals’ dance bags have their distinctions. Some are more obvious than others. Both carry Lululemon dance bags, but different styles. “Mine has a place for sweaty clothes and tons of pockets,” says Patricia. And while they both keep their pointe shoes in a separate bag, for Patricia, the norm is 12 pairs, and for Jeanette, 8. What each sister can’t do without differs, too. For Patricia it’s the little black bag that contains her foot first-aid kit. For Jeanette, it’s her Luna bar. “I have an early breakfast, then class and three hours of rehearsal before lunch. After that first hour of rehearsal, I really need that bar,” says Jeanette. Neither dancer is superstitious, but Patricia relies on her iPod to keep herself grounded. “If I have a stressful rehearsal where I need to be calm, then I put my iPod on shuffle and tune everyone else out,” says Patricia. “It puts me in the moment.” What do they borrow from each other? “Sometimes sewing supplies. But I always know Patricia has her first-aid kit if I need something!” says Jeanette.
Jeanette––Luna Bar, Traumeel (an anti-inflammatory ointment), folder for rehearsal notes and Yumiko dancewear info (she and another MCB dancer are reps for the leotards), cell phone (kept on vibrate), iPod; styling gel, hairspray, comb, pins, clips; Sigg limited-edition bottle from a Radiohead concert, deodorant, Sumbody vanilla body splash, pen, small mirror, make-up bag, scissors, rehearsal Don Q fan, corn pads, toe tape, pumice stone, 2nd Skin, foot massage ball, dental floss for sewing shoes, leg warmers, elastics to hold them up, Thera-Band, earring bag
Patricia––Bag with toe tape, corn cushions, toe spacers, 2nd Skin, moleskin, Neosporin; pen, sewing supplies, scissors, super glue, Sigg aluminum water bottle, tennis ball, foot massage ball, CryoDerm, Clif Builder’s Bars, journal, Anthropologie lip balm, Arnica tablets, Emergen-C, iPod, rehearsal CDs, CVS brand body splash, Burt’s Bees hand sanitizer, Traumeel; Thera-Band, plastic shorts, sweater, rehearsal Don Q fan, skirt
This interview first appeared in the April 17 Pointe e-newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.
On April 20, Miami City Ballet will collaborate for the first time with Miami's New World Symphony, premiering CHUTES AND LADDERS—a pas de deux by choreographer-of-the-moment Justin Peck—as part of the symphony's New Work program. Pointe's e-news talked to MCB principal Jeanette Delgado about working with Peck on the piece, which is set to Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 1.
We started off rehearsals by working on a section where we're facing the musicians, not the audience. So from the beginning the idea was, this is about the music, and it's for the musicians as much as anyone. We're performing at The New World Center, so they're inviting us into their home, and this is our way of saying "thank you."
What is it like working with Peck in the studio?
Justin has an interesting way of giving you analogies and little bits of imagery to help you get what he wants, so you aren't just mimicking his movements. By the end I felt like I was moving differently—it wasn't just Jeanette dancing in yet another piece. He also created a nice push and pull between the choreography and the score. At one point he said to me, "OK, this part is a race between you and the music." Other times he asked us to elongate everything until we were almost late. He wants the audience to see all the dynamics of the melody.
How does dancing to live music change the nature of a performance?
Watching music is just like watching dance in the sense that the closer you are to it, the more you feel the rhythm and the life. For CHUTES AND LADDERS the musicians will be onstage with us, so we'll be able to feed off each others' energy. And with live music there's always more breath to everything. You can never give a stale performance, because you have to be completely present—the way they play the music is never going to be the same twice!
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Jeanette Delgado with MCB dancers in Richard Alston's Carmen. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB.
The music is the most helpful thing because it's so intense and powerful. I try to listen to the opera while I'm warming up. And sometimes I read sections of the book that I've highlighted. That puts me in the mind frame of who I want to be. Once I get onstage, I try to be really present and respond to the people I'm dancing with in a natural way that's not forced.
How does the flamenco feel play into the choreography?
What has been the most difficult part of the ballet so far?
Developing the character so quickly. Ideally, you have three acts to really evolve. Even though it's probably physically harder to dance a three-act ballet than a one-act, I think emotionally, this is more challenging. There's a lot more I have to do in my mind in a very short amount of time to portray everything Carmen's gone through.
Do you identify with Carmen in any way?
She has a wild side that's very uninhibited and free-spirited. I like that element of her, that she gets to be fiery and say and do whatever she feels. When I was younger, I felt that I had more of that kind of character. I'd like to be able to tap into that onstage.
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