Tyler Donatelli, shown here in Etudes, initially turned down an offer to train at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home" training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream," says Layne Baumann, Harper's mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future."

Keep reading... Show less

Gabriella Yudenich is one of those dancers who looks completely at home in the ballet studio. A petite brunette with sparkling eyes, the Pennsylvania Ballet soloist has an infectious laugh that she doesn’t hesitate to unleash, even in the middle of a packed, slightly frantic rehearsal. Whether in rehearsal or performance, she stands out for her buoyant jump and luscious, fluid port de bras. Yudenich has dance in her genes: Her parents, Barbara Sandonato and Alexei Yudenich, were principal dancers with PB in the 1960s and ’70s. Nonetheless, when Yudenich decided she wanted to pursue ballet as a career, she found herself up against some pretty serious odds.


“I didn’t have natural turnout, natural feet or easy extension,” Yudenich says. “When I was 15, a doctor actually told me that I was not built for the profession and that I would never make it as a dancer!” But equipped with a serious work ethic and an unwavering passion for the art form, Yudenich, now 25, has become a performer one Philadelphia reviewer called “electrifying”—and her star is still on the rise. 


Though her parents retired from dancing before she was born, “from the time I was little, I always remember ballet being there,” Yudenich says. She accompanied her parents to their dance teaching jobs and, when she was 6, started taking classes herself, both with her mother and with other teachers at studios where her mother taught. Still, dance was only one of many childhood interests. While Yudenich quickly fell in love with story ballets and enjoyed being onstage, she didn’t always like the discipline and routine of class.


Her turning point came when she saw Backstage at the Kirov, a behind-the-scenes video following Kirov Ballet dancer Altynai Asylmuratova through rehearsal and performance. “I was so captured by her life,” Yudenich says. “It struck a chord with me. I told my mom, ‘I know what I want to be—a ballerina!’ She said, ‘Oh, then you have a lot of work to do.’ ”


That hard work came in the form of intense training at The Rock School, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, School of American Ballet, among others. And it paid off: At 18, Yudenich was invited to join Pennsylvania Ballet II. She became an apprentice with PB at 20, and a member of the corps soon after. In September 2007, she was promoted to soloist, thanks in part to the kind of fairy-tale debut most corps dancers only dream of. Cast as the understudy for Myrta in PB’s February 2007 production of Giselle, Yudenich ended up dancing on opening night, and her commanding performance won an enthusiastic response from audience members and critics alike.


“Gabby has a strong and reliable technique, with a wonderful ballon in her jump. But the most important aspect of her dancing is her performance quality,” explains PB Artistic Director Roy Kaiser. “She demands that you watch her.”


Yudenich excels in both classical and contemporary work, and has performed the role of the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. She has also danced a featured role in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Kazimir’s Colours. Her dream roles—Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Nikiya in La Bayadère—reflect the special place she holds in her heart for the classics. Yet no matter what the role, it all comes back to the music: “As a child, if I heard Tchaikovsky, even though I didn’t know it was Tchaikovsky, it just made me want to move,” she says. “That’s why I absolutely had to dance. When the music is beautiful, it makes me so emotional—and then to dance to that music is such a treat. It’s like my body can almost breathe through the music by dancing.”

Kathryn Holmes is a dancer and writer in New York City.

The Rock School has a certain reputation: "The kids call the school 'Pirouettes R Us,' " says director Bo Spassoff. But although it's become most well-known for producing technically dazzling dancers, The Rock also has another side. For many students, it's a lifelong second home. Case in point: Three of the most prominent Rock alumni—Beckanne Sisk, Christine Shevchenko and Esteban Hernandez—will return to the their old stomping grounds this Friday to perform in a special gala benefit celebrating the school's 50th anniversary. For fun, we asked Spassoff what these dancers were like as kids.

 

Beckanne Sisk, Ballet West soloist

"She came to the school at 13—she was a wobbly colt. Wet spaghetti! A little over four years later she joined Ballet West and has had a Cinderella story there. Beckanne still comes back for the Rock Summer program to stay in shape and perform, and she's a shining example for students. She always has a ready smile for everyone. 'Breaking Pointe' recently spent a day here filming with Beckanne and her friend; that should air this summer."

 

Esteban Hernandez, Royal Ballet School student

"While he could be a handful at times, he's become a mature and very intelligent young man. And he's a spectacular dancer. He's going to be the first Mexican to graduate from the Royal Ballet School, and then will join the corps of San Francisco Ballet this fall."

 

Christine Shevchenko, American Ballet Theatre corps member

"Christine was local and lived with her mother. Even at 8 years old she was disciplined and unstinting in her work ethic, and that never changed. She became the first American-trained dancer in 24 years to win a gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition—Natalia Osipova won bronze that year. Christine is amazingly strong technically and has exquisite artistry, but she's also always polite and kind. She's proof that you can be successful in ballet and be a delightful, caring person at the same time."

 

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox