My dance training has had many phases. My mother danced into her 20s and knew how difficult a professional career could be. So to save me from heartbreak, she steered me towards gymnastics when I was 6. But that summer I attended a camp that included ballet—and loved it. My mother relented and enrolled me in the local Royal Academy of Dance school. I quickly learned to show up on time in proper dress, be quiet in class, pay attention to the teacher and stop fidgeting.

 

Soon I got serious. Like many 8-year-old girls, it happened after seeing The Nutcracker, in my case at Boston Ballet. I enrolled in the company school and worked my way into a preprofessional track. I had good teachers and wonderful opportunities—I was a little Nutcracker lamb my first year—but I was one of many, and didn’t get the attention I hoped for.

 

I knew I had some ability, but there were lots of girls who had more. I wasn’t the most flexible, but was flexible enough. Not the strongest, but strong enough. I didn’t have the best legs and feet, but what I had would do. I knew that if I were to amount to anything as a dancer, I would have to work especially hard with teachers who also were willing to work with me.

 

The summer I turned 10, I took a weekend ballet course with Jacqueline Cronsberg at Ballet Workshop of New England, her school outside of Boston. It was clear to me shortly after taking her classes that I belonged there. So I left the glamorous world of Boston Ballet to study Balanchine technique in a small suburban school. It felt strange at first, but the attention I got made it worth it.

 

There was something about Balanchine technique and Ms. Cronsberg’s teaching style that made sense in my body immediately. The musicality of Balanchine movements felt as natural to me as breathing, yet so feminine and elegant. I could use my native talents and decent facility to really begin to move. A turning point came when I realized I could do more than remember choreography: I was learning to dance.  

 

I spent many hours in the studio alone with Ms. Cronsberg; it was my favorite time as a student. I would arrive after school and we would work on my bourrées for an hour, going every which way across the floor. She was incredibly patient and nurturing and cared for each of her students. She also knew when to let us go. She made sure we went away to summer intensives—I spent three summers at Chautauqua with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride. She took us to New York City on weekends, where I studied with Willy Burmann and learned the role of Terpsichore in Apollo from Allegra Kent.

 

When I turned 15, Ms. Cronsberg told me it was time to join a company. Through her contacts, I auditioned for the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, which offered me an apprentice contract. I had performed many leading roles with Ms. Cronsberg’s Massachusetts Youth Ballet, so I was already comfortable onstage. Only a few short months after I arrived in Copenhagen, however, I was cast as Juliet in John Neumeier’s version of Romeo and Juliet. I look back and see how pivotal that was in my career. It shaped my understanding of what it meant to dance a role—that being onstage has a dimension beyond mastering the choreography. That opportunity led me to a soloist contract with San Francisco Ballet when I was 17.

 

Now I’m still training, still learning to be an artist. It is difficult to maintain the technique that took years for me to develop because rehearsals and performances fill my schedule. It’s easy to let my daily company class become a warm-up when it really should be a way to continue my learning and development. I have to constantly remind myself that I am always aiming to improve in class, just as I try to improve in rehearsals and onstage. It takes all three to become an artist.  

 

For someone trying to discover what kind of training is the right fit, my advice is only that you will know when you find it. If your love for dance is there, then working hard in class isn’t a struggle. I hope you are lucky enough to find someone like Ms. Cronsberg, and get an opportunity to experience something like the time we spent building the professional dancer I was going to become.

Sarah Van Patten is a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet.

Dancer: Sarah Van Patten
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten always commands the stage in roles that call for dramatic depth and musicality. But because she is not usually thought of as a strong technician, she was a long shot to be cast as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

Certainly, her interpretation was the least virtuosic among the six women who performed the role in Helgi Tomasson’s new
production—but hers was also the boldest and most touching. Van Patten’s phrasing as Odette was lush and aching. Her sexiness as Odile was searing. Portraying the emotions of her characters came naturally, Van Patten says. But she also powered through the fear-inspiring fouettés and worked hard to maintain strong footwork. “I wanted to have a solid base because when you have that, you can give yourself over to the role,” she says. Indeed, she achieved the technical strength she needed, but put it in total service to emotional artistry. —Rachel Howard



Dancer: Domenico Luciano
Company: Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre
Ballet: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

 
Domenico Luciano knows how to be a he-bird. As the only dancer outside of Matthew Bourne’s troupe performing Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake pas de deux, Luciano made a statement during his Houston performance last season. At 6’ 3” and a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David, Luciano is a mighty presence. He evokes an animal energy with his seemingly endless lines. Bourne’s ballet straddles a fine edge between parody and myth, and Luciano luxuriates in that very territory: sensuous, but always masculine. “Bourne’s piece feels right for my physicality,” says Luciano. “Although I’m so comfortable in the role, there’s so much to discover in the character. It’s a bit murky in that I am a figment of the prince’s imagination. The relationship between the prince and the swan is really deliciously ambiguous.” —Nancy Wozny

 

Dancer: Natalia Osipova
Company: Bolshoi Ballet
Ballet: August Bournonville’s La Sylphide

 
In her sensational debut with American Ballet Theatre last June, Bolshoi Ballet principal Natalia Osipova demonstrated the power of a beloved old classroom step: grand jeté. With her impeccable technique and unfailing musicality, she would be the ideal heroine for any ballet, but it was the airy lightness of her grand jeté that made her the perfect choice for the doomed forest sprite in Bournonville’s La Sylphide. The three leaps she performed in rapid succession at the end of Act I seemed to require no preparation at all, coming out of nowhere to vanish before our eyes. While tossing off feats of strength, Osipova embodied a fatal fragility. A creature of the air, utterly weightless, she was too delicate to escape the tragic end awaiting her. —Harris Green

 

Dancer: Alina Cojocaru
Company: The Royal Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Giselle

 
For almost a decade, Alina Cojocaru had been one of the brightest stars in a sparkling constellation of ballerinas at The Royal Ballet—until a prolapsed disc in her neck threatened to end her career in 2008. After 11 months away from the stage, she returned to the Royal Opera House last April to perform Giselle, her signature role.

Cojocaru always brings exquisite technique and emotional poignancy to this role. But being unable to dance for so long brought her even closer to her character. “The joy of dance made my Giselle and my Alina be one person more than ever,” she says. With just five days’ rehearsal, she allowed no concessions to her long layoff; her technique was as brilliant as ever and Giselle’s adolescent innocence blossomed into a coruscating love that defied the grave. The New York Times’ critic Roslyn Sulcas declared it to be “one of the great dance renditions of our time.” 

    
At the end of an emotional evening, the ecstatic audience covered the stage in flowers and, as the curtain fell, Cojocaru says she felt that “to lose and then fight for something I love was in my very soul. One battle in my life was won; now I’m ready for whatever else life will bring!” —Graham Watts

 

Dancer: Riolama Lorenzo
Company: Pennsylvania Ballet
Ballet: Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto

 

Sometimes a smaller company offers just the room for growth that an exceptionally gifted dancer needs to burnish her talent. Riolama Lorenzo danced Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries while in the corps of New York City Ballet several years ago. Now, after having moved to Pennsylvania Ballet in 2002, and ascending from corps to principal in three short years, she’s still dancing Martins’ work—sublimely. Her role in his Barber Violin Concerto last season had Lorenzo making a dazzling transition from the ideal
ballerina who seemed to land each jump on a pillow of air, to literally letting her hair down in gutsier action. Cuban-born Lorenzo is beloved by Philadelphia audiences for her daring and her clear attack. Standing 5’8”, with exquisitely arched feet and an astonishingly supple spine, her flexibility, precision and range along with a presence that exudes both directness and depth make Riolama Lorenzo shine. —Lisa Kraus

 

Dancer: Alex Wong
Company: Miami City Ballet
Ballet: Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room

Few would think of the cheerfully loosey-goosey choreography for the sneaker-clad “stompers” in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as technical. Yet when Miami City Ballet principal soloist Alex Wong blazed through the stompers’ bouncy leaps and backward jogs this spring, he epitomized virtuosic technique. Wong’s precise classical style and fine-tuned musicality lent the high-speed role—which most dancers are lucky just to survive—polish and panache. And in a work defined by explosive displays of energy, Wong crackled with a singular electricity: His jumps were the most buoyant, his joyful intensity unmatched.

Wong thinks that Tharp’s presence in the audience inspired his superhuman performance. “We were pushing as hard as we could for her, trying to fill the entire space,” he remembers. “Just thinking about it makes my body start to tingle.”  —Margaret Fuhrer

 

Dancer: Sterling Hyltin
Company: New York City Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s Coppélia

Sterling Hyltin made several outstanding performances at New York City Ballet last winter, and two were as Swanilda in Coppélia. At her first performance, her sunny personality, unfailing musicality, assured technique and buoyant energy proved a perfect fit for the spunky heroine. Less successful was acting that relied on mugging (rolling her eyes, say, to express disdain for her boyfriend, Franz). By her second performance, however, Hyltin had replaced mannerisms with actions; now Swanilda snubbed Franz with a toss of her head or a shrug. It was if she had created a new performance, one that could now reach the audience at the very top of the house through movement alone. Such makeovers are as much a part of Hyltin’s dancing as taking class. —Harris Green

 

Dancer: Kristi Boone
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son

 
Although she’s been a soloist since 2007, Kristi Boone has rarely been given the chance to carry a ballet. But during a foray into principal territory last June as the Siren, she looked every inch the part, from the sensuous, exaggerated curves of her legs and feet to her beautiful face, stoic and imposing. It was a dangerous, exciting debut. Her dancing was icy and deliberate—she pulled off the tricky Balanchine choreography with finesse. Boone had been itching to wield the Siren’s red cape since ABT’s last run of Prodigal in 2000, when she was still with ABT II. She relishes the role as a rare opportunity for a female dancer. “You’re usually the damsel in distress,” she says. “You never get to have that much power.” —Kina Poon

 

Dancer: Jonathan Porretta
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

 
Even when the music was soft in PNB’s production of the Petipa classic, you couldn’t hear Jonathan Porretta land his clean, soaring jumps. You could, however, in an auditorium that seats 2,900, actually hear the beating of his feet.

Over the past few years, working with contemporary choreographers, this magnetic virtuoso has grown into an artist. With his Swan Lake roles—the flashy, character-rich Jester and the gentler, lyrical pas de trois male—he proved himself a sensitive master of classical ballet as well. Porretta is all things to all people, working to fulfill choreographers’ visions, embodying composers’ music, connecting with fellow dancers, achieving personal satisfaction and conversing with the audience. And what a conversation it is! —Rosie Gaynor

 

Dancer: Joanna Wozniak
Company: The Joffrey Ballet
Ballet: Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring

 
Joanna Wozniak danced The Chosen One in Rite of Spring three times during the Joffrey’s spring season, and she was perfect from the start—vulnerable, aware, poignant, terrified and noticeably more powerful and ferocious than in her many traditionally lyrical roles. She had dreamed of dancing this role of a human sacrifice ever since joining the company in 2003. And once she learned the part, Wozniak began “thinking about what this young virgin girl was really like, going through all the complex emotions she must have felt knowing she was about to die, and realizing that her family, and all the people she had trusted, had turned against her in a way.” The Chosen One’s grueling solo lasts only a few minutes, but before the dancer bursts into motion she must stand absolutely still, frozen in fright. “There is a spotlight over you at that point, and everything else seems to disappear into darkness, though you can hear the Elders stomping. And it’s at that moment that you really become the character.” —Hedy Weiss

 

Dancer: Marie-Agnès Gillot
Company: Paris Opéra Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Apollo

 
As the first Paris Opéra Ballet dancer promoted to étoile after performing a nonclassical ballet, Marie-Agnès Gillot is the company’s contemporary darling. She always looks like she’s having an “on” night, so grounded that she can balance at her whim until she chooses to move on to the next step. But what makes her truly unique in modern movement is her ability to imbue even the most abstract works with meaning and personality. Many Balanchine purists were astonished at Gillot’s playful, seductive Terpsichore in  Apollo at the Nijinsky Gala in Hamburg last summer. The usually spare, cool neoclassicism became jazzy, with hips jutting from side to side. Her long legs articulated each step with clarity. And her entire body tested the limits of how much she could play with the music, coyly waiting to feel each movement from within before letting it gravitate out to the tips of her pointe shoes. —Jennifer Stahl

 

Dancer: Ebony Williams
Company: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Ballet: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo

 
When Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Ebony Williams steps onstage, her presence is sometimes so fierce, it’s intimidating just to be in the audience. That presence was most evident this year in Cedar Lake’s mysterious, multilayered Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Williams moved with utter fearlessness, forcefully throwing her body into the movement at one moment, finding a soft, slinky angularity the next. “He choreographed my solo by giving me tasks that would create movement,” says Williams. “At first, I had to move like I had balls all over me, then like I was made of fire and at the end I became an animal.” Although Williams admits she was nervous about having to come up with her own contemporary movement, she appreciated that the process was a partnership: “He wanted to know how I moved and who I was—and let me show that onstage.” —Jennifer Stahl

 

Honorable Mentions

Kathryn Morgan in The Sleeping Beauty Wedding Pas de Deux, during New York City Ballet’s “Dancer’s Choice” evening: Simultaneously authoritative and delicate, regal and gentle, the young corps de ballet member breezed through this technically exacting pas de deux, the perfect showcase for her ineffable brand of understated charm.

Maria Riccetto in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle with Herman Cornejo: Usually paired with David Hallberg, Riccetto bloomed dancing with Cornejo, bringing a deep tenderness and vulnerability to the role. Technically flawless, she made Giselle utterly believable, and together she and Cornejo seemed a natural partnership.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 45-year-old Louise Nadeau in Forsythe’s Urlicht at her farewell performance in June: Strength, grace, technique, musicality and personality all combined at peak levels for what was one of her best performances.

Hamburg Ballet principal Hélène Bouchet in Verklungene Feste by John Neumeier: She moved with that ideal combination of strength and abandon that all dancers strive for yet rarely achieve. Over and over, she sent her body flying, then pulled back and found the control to guide her limbs into precise positions.

Robin Mathes in Mauro Bigonzetti’s rousing Cantata: Leaving fear in the dust, the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal soloist mixed gravitas with abandon, charging head-on into the pathos of the music.

Jazmon Voss and Cira Robinson of the U.K.’s Ballet Black in Antonia Franceschi’s intimate Pop8: After a scintillating duet in which Voss and Robinson were vivacious yet sinuous, Voss’ jazz-themed solo fused muscular virtuosity with delicate grace and sophistication.

When Sarah Van Patten first danced the lead in a Royal Danish Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet, it felt like a cinch. Just 16 years old, she was an apprentice in the company and it seemed very real. “I didn’t even think about acting,” she says.   

Now 24 and a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Van Patten has often been praised for the way she interprets roles. But when she was cast as a woman quarreling with her lover in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, she felt a little daunted. “I can play the lyrical young girl in love,” she explains. “This was a woman with far more wisdom and experience. To be that, I needed to research it.”

Achieving the heights of artistry can challenge the most experienced dancers, coaches and choreographers. According to Violette Verdy, coach, teacher and former New York City Ballet principal, artistry means expressing all the dimensions of a role, whether or not the ballet tells a story. And ballet without artistry? “Boy, do you get bored!” she says.

Yet many dancers receive little training in how to portray a role beyond its technical demands. That may be one impetus for a burgeoning educational movement to help dancers explore ballet’s vast emotional range. Playing a glass-slippered Cinderella liberated from hearth and rags presents one challenge, but how does a dancer in an abstract ballet convey the steps’ essence? And how does one learn such subtle, hard-to-define skills?

Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has grappled head-on with how to approach teaching artistry. You want to do as many pirouettes as possible? “Fine,” she says. “But what are you saying?” She notes that in most companies today, repertoires are taught quickly, with little time for dancers to fine-tune their understanding of a piece. So a decade ago, Staines started a class to help students learn how to tackle the process themselves. “The schools have to take responsibility,” she says. “In companies, you can’t expect to get coaching like you used to. Students have to be self-sufficient. You have to give them the tools.”  

To develop those tools, she invited former Royal Danish Ballet soloist Sorella Englund to Toronto to teach an annual five-week improvisation course, “Drama and Expression.” Englund limits the class size to create a close-knit atmosphere and also sets strict rules to encourage openness and experimentation. “We can laugh together,” she says, “but not at each other.”

Englund then assigns a simple exercise like walking. Next, each student attempts to display a particular emotion while walking. “I ask them how it feels walking in different moods—somebody excited, aggressive, amused by a little thing, seeing a light in the sky,” she explains. Eventually, students take a partner and trade those emotions. “It forces them to concentrate on what they’re doing, and the other person’s emotions.”

To help students learn expressiveness in abstract roles, Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of The Juilliard School’s Dance Division, urges dancers to keep in mind that there may be more to dancing than meets the eye. “An abstract ballet that doesn’t have named characters still has character,” he explains. “Think of a Balanchine ballet that’s very particular in music, style and technique. There is real drama and tension.”

Sometimes ballet masters can share a piece’s history, and what the choreographer originally wanted. But dancers must also look inward. “Don’t be shy about digging into yourself to realize a piece you’re working on,” says Rhodes. He defines that process as finding a way to live with the music, connect the movements and inhabit a piece. Even technically gifted dancers can struggle to achieve artistry, he cautions. “It’s about how deeply you sense character, space, music and relationships,” he says. “And about relating to a partner, a group, the space. And how you move through space and how you decide to develop a dance in space.”

Nonetheless, Rhodes agrees artistry can be achieved to some degree by working hard to learn the steps, counts and music and then adding elements like phrasing and épaulement. In “Modern Solos and Duets,” Juilliard students spend two or three sessions learning a solo or duet. The following 10 classes then are devoted to repetition and coaching. “You have the steps,” Rhodes explains. “Now where can you go with the piece? How do you develop it? We teach students how to dig. With feedback from the instructor, they learn how to refine it, make it better. They understand intrinsic musical values and how to investigate a work.”

Even when dancers become professionals, the digging isn’t over. In the Night’s three couples portray complex relationships. To find her interpretation of an aggressive and emotionally scarred woman—and to avoid provoking laughter as she’s hoisted upside down, arms flailing—Van Patten mined performance videos for nuance and detail, from timing to eye movement. “A lot of it has to do with watching other dancers,” she says. “You have to study them in fine detail to portray a part realistically.”

When Van Patten danced the role of Juliet with SFB, she could still tap into the same well of innocence she felt at 16, but this time, she’d seen more of the world. She realized the significance of the story, including the poignant death scenes. “It was a stronger performance,” she says. “I had more mental awareness.” And if she performed Juliet again? “It would be different,” she says, “because I’m different. With every role, you start at the beginning.” But, she adds, “If the passion’s there, you’ll want to improve. If you have the will, you’ll have the way.”

Melding all these ephemeral qualities with technique is artistry at its apex—and the future of ballet, says Englund. Like many, Englund laments that dance education has become purely physical. Yet she has no desire to return to yesteryear. “We’ve forgotten that ballet is a language to express atmosphere, emotion, energy,” she says. “I realize we can’t go back. Technique is at a high level and it should stay there. But the mind and emotions have to be hand-in-hand with physicality. If you only think of the perfect turnout, the perfect extension, then you’re trying to make art perfect.

“Art,” she says, with absolute conviction, “should be full of life.

Former dancer Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in NYC.

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