When choosing a pre-professional program, many dancers focus on the number of hours they'll spend training in the studio. But technique is only one ingredient in the recipe for making a professional dancer. To produce well-rounded artists, many ballet schools are expanding their curriculums to include classes in dance history, science, stagecraft and career counseling. “The focus so much now is on technique, but I think it's important for us to go back and develop ourselves as artists and people," says Colorado Ballet Academy director Valerie Madonia. The broader knowledge these supplemental classes bring makes dancers more marketable as professionals, and helps distinguish a good dancer from a great artist.
Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.
But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me ‘bull in a china shop’ because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn’t do it gracefully,” she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five.”
Button’s story is one example of how a school’s view on competition can factor into its training philosophy. Students who compete are often virtuosic performers with a commanding stage presence; dancers who don’t compete often excel in technical nuance and refinement of style, but may not have as much stage experience. When choosing a school, consider how its policy on competition fits your personality and whether it will get you to your career goals.
Training for Competition
There is a stereotype about schools that compete: Students rehearse one or two variations nonstop all year long, to the neglect of well-rounded training. The reality, however, is that many schools view competition as an extension of a dancer’s training, rather than the ultimate goal. “It’s certainly not our prime focus,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. “We submit students to competitions because the preparation is instrumental in getting them stronger and helps their overall technical development. The prize is in the process.”
Still, The Rock School for Dance Education co-director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says that dancers who are selected to compete may follow a different rehearsal schedule. “Sometimes while one group is competing, another will be doing a school show,” says Spassoff.
Perhaps the biggest difference between students who compete and those who do not is that competing dancers are regularly exposed to the pressures of professional life. Competition forces dancers to take responsibility for the preparation and outcome of their performances, and learn how to deal with nerves. Plus, competing helps build stage presence. And it is a great platform for dancers to be seen by company directors—a potential kick-start to a career.
A No-Competition Policy
Schools that forbid participation in competitions believe that students don’t need to look beyond their doors for training, performance and networking opportunities. The School of American Ballet, for instance, emphasizes setting full-length ballets and bringing in outside choreographers. This approach lets a dancer focus solely on technique, with an emphasis on refinement and clarity. “Because we don’t compete,” says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, “it gives us time to train our students in our Balanchine style, using our Balanchine syllabus.”
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Nicholas Ade acknowledges that many dancers nab jobs through competitions. The school does not have an official policy, but he believes students shouldn’t be seen and evaluated for professional slots until they’re truly ready. “We tell students: You will make a name for yourself, but it will be when you are fully cooked, when all the ingredients are there,” he says. “Then, you’re seen not only for your potential, but in a more finished and polished way, as a young professional.”
The key is to choose a school that fits your personality, where you are in your training and your career dreams. What do your favorite companies value? Research their dancers’ training paths. The school you choose now will shape the kind of dancer you will become.
SAB of the West (With a Twist)?
There’s a new training option for high school dancers in Los Angeles: Come September, the Colburn Dance Academy, a partnership between The Colburn School and Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, will host its first class of 12 students. The program, directed by recently retired New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer, will have roots in Balanchine, with a diverse set of specialty classes like ballroom, hip hop and piano. “We want to take these dancers and polish them. Prepare them for professional life,” says Ringer. “We’re excited to expose them to that through LADP.” Students will attend dance classes during the day and take academics at nearby schools or online. Ringer hopes the program will eventually expand and secure its own dorm. “We’d like to have a similar model to SAB,” she says. Faculty had not been finalized as of press time, but Millepied is scheduled to teach, with several guest artists on rotation. The first for 2014–15 is Wendy Whelan. —Kristin Schwab
“Using your port de bras from your back changes how your arms look, lengthening your muscles. It will help your classical technique, giving you a cleaner pirouette and higher jump. Before class, I do yoga cat and cows to warm up my lats. Sometimes during barre, I flex my palms so I can feel the full length underneath my arms. You have to set it up at the barre so when you get to center, you don’t have to think about it.” —Rachel Van Buskirk, Atlanta Ballet
Jane Rehm was a top dancer at her studio in Toledo, Ohio, so it was a shock when she arrived at American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive at 14 and was placed in the lowest level. “I didn’t understand it,” says Rehm, who dances with Smuin Ballet and Post:Ballet. “I had always been one of the best and all of a sudden I was far, far from it.”
Your level placement determines much of the training you’ll receive at your summer intensive: the teachers you’ll have, the variations you’ll learn and the choreography you’ll perform at the closing performance. What should you do if you’re placed lower than you deserve? As nerve-wracking as it may be, you need to talk to your teacher if you are concerned that it will hold you back.
Are You Really in the Wrong Level?
It’s best to take a few classes before speaking up to make sure your emotions aren’t getting in the way, as being placed in a lower level can be hard on the ego. Look around you—are the dancers you’re with truly below your technical level? If so, did you have a horrible placement class? Are you overcoming an injury?
Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power says level placement isn’t about your worth as a dancer, but how you match up to that year’s applicant pool. “Remember that the auditioner goes out and sees what the level is across the country,” she says. “It goes through trends.” The talent pool and number of dancers that audition for a program vary each year.
Still, she admits that students sometimes do receive an incorrect placement. “It’s inevitable. You see someone for an hour in an audition and sometimes you get it wrong.”
If you’ve given your level placement some thought and still feel it’s incorrect, you should ask to talk with your main teacher within the first week of the program. Power stresses that having an accusing tone—telling the teacher that she put you in the wrong level—will not help. Instead, approach the conversation with an eagerness to improve. I’m surprised that I have been placed in this level. What should I focus on this summer to progress?
You may discover that something very specific is holding you back. For instance, “At The School of Washington Ballet we look at pointework very closely,” says school director Kee Juan Han. “To me, pointework is very delicate and it needs to be very carefully formed.” If a dancer needs to improve her pointework, Han might place her in a lower level so she can build strength and avoid injury.
Even if the conversation doesn’t result in being moved up, letting a teacher know you’re worried about your improvement during the program can only benefit you. “It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be moved up,” says Power, “but it does give you a little bit more focus from the teacher.” Cluing them in to how you feel lets them know that you’re ready for a challenge—they might be a little harder on you, give you more corrections or push your technique.
Working Through It
If your level doesn’t change, don’t let it affect your experience. “Standing out like a sore thumb because you’re depressed or mad won’t help show that you have the maturity to handle the stress of being in a higher level,” says Power. The education you gain at a summer intensive is more than technique alone: It tests the maturity, independence and tenacity that are required to be a professionaldancer. “When you’re in a company and a choreographer sets a piece, you’re going to have days with many of the same feelings you have now,” says Power.
Enjoy the perks of being at the top of your class. “If it were me, I would rather be in the top tier than go to another level where I’m struggling to keep up,” says Han. You might get more attention from teachers and a chance for bigger roles in the end-of-program performance, leading to more coaching time and attention from the affiliated company’s artistic staff. And if the dancing doesn’t feel vigorous enough, push yourself to work on the details of your technique and ask your teacher if you can take extra classes with other levels.
Though it may not feel like it now, your placement might be exactly what you need. Rehm attended ABT’s summer program again two years later and was placed in the highest level, but she feels that she actually improved more during her year in Level 1. “When you show up to a program, the best mindset you can possibly have is that I’m coming to learn what I don’t already know, not to prove what I do know,” says Rehm. If you land in a level that’s over your head, you’ll push through without dancing correctly. “Then you’re just a collection of imitations and bad habits.”
Technique Tip: It’s All in the Épaulement
“Focusing on making phrases gives your dancing a more cohesive look. You need to start working on connecting technique and artistry in class—not just doing arabesque, step, arabesque, but making it a phrase, a sentence. The first step in that is using your épaulement more. It’s showing that you’re not just a technician, but that you can really dance. At the end of the day, that’s what it means to be an artist.” —Alexandra Meister, Nashville Ballet
Study with Cynthia Harvey
One perk of attending a summer intensive in New York City is the opportunity to explore dance outside of your program. June 7 and 8, former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Harvey will hold the first master classes with her newly formed En Avant Foundation at Baryshnikov Arts Center. There are two tracks of training: pre-professional, for students ages 14 to 17, and professional. Both groups will take class and receive variation and pas de deux coaching from former Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella and former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Isabelle Guérin, as well as Harvey herself. Dance Magazine advice columnist Dr. Linda Hamilton will lecture on overcoming the stresses of performance. “Dancers can do a big variety of work now, but we hope to focus on classical ballet,” says Harvey. “It’s an opportunity to spend a full day with the masters who will teach, coach and speak about the art form.” Acceptance is first come, first served, and some financial assistance is available. enavantfoundation.com.—Kristin Schwab
There are several technical hurdles that many dancers struggle to overcome, like raised shoulders and floppy wrists. Though they may seem like small details, they can stand between you and your next level—whether that's entry to a prestigious summer intensive, a top score at a competition or even an apprentice position at a coveted company.
These bad habits aren't easy to break; even professionals battle them. Sarah Van Patten, for one, admits that her shoulders sneak up when she's tired, preventing her from fully engaging her back. “I lose that connection and I'm not on top of the movement," says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “It's a habit I have to constantly think about."
Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey finds that no matter how often teachers or coaches point out certain issues, dancers frequently have trouble applying the advice. “I can give the same correction over and over again," she says. “But it's up to the dancer to make the adjustment." Sometimes, it takes a new approach to do the trick.
As the dancers took their places, Justine Essis Gildea, 17, had an intense case of the jitters. But she wasn’t onstage. The Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student was watching the debut of her ballet, Mishima, part of the 2012 FirstSteps CPYB Student Choreographic Workshop. “I was more nervous than I’d ever been as a dancer,” she says. “Everything is on the line because you’ve worked so hard to create it.”
Most of us strive to perfect our performances, but do you ever wonder what it feels like on the other side of the rehearsal studio? Many top training programs, including the School of American Ballet, Boston Ballet School and the Chautauqua Institution, have started offering choreography workshops, classes or intensives. While these are typically optional, there are plenty of reasons why you should opt in—regardless of whether you plan on becoming the next Balanchine. With more of today’s ballet companies emphasizing new choreography, either through commissioned works (sometimes from their own dancers) or even choreographic competitions, your chances of being created on are quite high. By stepping into a choreographer’s shoes, you can grow more keenly aware of what they need from you as a dancer, making you a more attractive hire.
“We’re not trying to teach people to be choreographers,” says CPYB resident choreographer Alan Hineline, who directs the school’s FirstSteps program, “but we’re trying to provide them with the skills and the experience to understand what it means to be a choreographer.”
This year, Hineline plans to build upon the FirstSteps program by offering composition classes to help dancers better understand choreographic building blocks, such as musical phrasing and spatial structure. His class will introduce students to formal structures shared between different forms of art, such as one group working against another in a canon. “You watch something like Balanchine’s ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ and you see how canons are so effective as a means to express musicality,” says Hineline.
Developing Taste and Style
At Houston Ballet Academy, Chase Cobb helps coordinate an annual choreographic collaboration between summer intensive dancers and student composers from the American Festival for the Arts. “When you choreograph, you’re asked to qualify every choice that you make, distill it down into tangible ideas and then communicate it to somebody else,” he says. “The experience really helps hone students’ communication skills and solidify their ideas as artists.”
For many students, the process starts by researching favorite choreographers to help them formulate ideas and discover their own artistic taste. For his duet Discovery and the Like, Houston Ballet Academy student James Potter, 16, turned to Mats Ek. “A lot of his work has a domesticated, homey feel that’s totally relatable,” says Potter. “I wanted to incorporate that same feel in my work.”
Most schools use a hands-off approach to choreography, allowing students to create whatever they like and cultivate a personal working style. “Some dancers come in and have all the steps mapped out,” says Hineline, “while others are freer in their process.” Either way, students learn that flexibility is key, as ideas often change. For instance, Alexander Manning, a CPYB alum now apprenticing with Miami City Ballet, discovered that phrases that felt comfortable on his male frame sometimes looked laborious on his all-female cast.
Gaining Leadership Skills
Choreography classes can also take dancers to a new level of personal growth: Not only are you forced to dig deep creatively, but you develop time management, organizational and leadership skills. No longer focused on their own dancing, students must take charge of the room and sensitively gauge the work habits of others while staying on course. “I didn’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want to be so lenient that the piece didn’t turn out well,” says Gildea. Receptive dancers with a willingness to collaborate proved especially valuable to her during the process. “Next time I work with a choreographer, I want to be the same way.”
Showing your piece and listening to feedback is common during choreographic workshops. “It’s very exposing,” says Cobb, “but it allows the choreographers to step back a bit and see their work for its full value.” For instance, after faculty members advised Potter to create more emotional connections between his dancers, he spent the remaining rehearsal period developing their characterizations. Learning to take critiques about something you’ve created can be one of the most challenging parts of the process, but it builds maturity that can translate back to your dance life.
A Choreographer’s Dancer
Many students say that participating in a choreographic workshop opened their eyes as artists. “It changed how I watched ballet,” says Manning, who used to focus primarily on the dancers. Now, he sees the bigger picture, from music to lighting to spacing. Experiencing the amount of effort choreographers pour into their work—and knowing firsthand what they need—allows you, as a dancer, to approach your work more creatively and intelligently. “Now that I’m back on the other side,” says Manning, “I want to be that inspiring, hard-working, collaborative dancer they look for.”
Kozlova’s Competition Gets Edgier
The Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition is going contemporary this year, with a makeover as the International Contemporary Choreographers and Dancers Competition. The event has always included a compulsory contemporary variation, but this edition will cut the classical component out of the mix. (For classical competitors, the regular VKIBC will be back in 2015.)
For founder Valentina Kozlova, the decision to host a contemporary competition was simple. “For every single ballet company today, you need to be a dancer who can do contemporary as well as the classics,” she says. “This isn’t modern or jazz or acrobatics, but the kind of contemporary that is performed in classical companies today.”
The competition, which will be held in New York City on April 28 and 29, will be open to dancers and choreographers of all ages, with an emphasis on granting exposure to up-and-coming dancemakers. “There are many talented choreographers around and they have trouble starting,” says Kozlova. “I want to use this to help promote young talent.”
Solo dancers will present two works each. Choreographers will be allowed to enter solo, duet or group works. All interested competitors can apply online at vkibc.org.
Class on the Road
Want to take class while you’re on tour or vacation? Download the On Point Dance app for your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. You can search 16 major cities to see a list of daily class schedules at all nearby dance schools. Quickly scroll from school to school and compile your own list of the best offerings. The program costs 99 cents in iTunes.
“I sometimes hold a pen (actually a skinny makeup brush!) between my pointer, middle and ring fingers for a few combinations at barre. It helps me feel my fingers so that I can create a beautiful shape with my hands throughout the day.” —Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson
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During her first semester with Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Rachel Silvern surprised herself. “Growing up, the focus was always on dancing to please others, to get cast in something,” she says. “But at Columbia, suddenly it wasn’t about who was watching or what they thought. I was dancing for myself—and rediscovering why I danced in the first place.”
For serious ballet students who don’t plan to major in dance in college, performing with a student-run ballet company is becoming an increasingly accessible option. More and more schools offer them. And the troupes can be incubators for real talent—alumni of Harvard Ballet Company, for example, now dance with American Ballet Theatre, Los Angeles Ballet and Ballet Austin.
Student-run troupes aren’t about polishing your dancing—the training will never be as rigorous as a dance department’s. Yet the do-it-yourself spirit can lead to artistic growth like Silvern’s, or new behind-the-scenes interests. A student company can also provide possibilities to take on leadership roles by choreographing, teaching or directing. However, the opportunities vary widely from school to school. Figuring out what you’ll gain from the experience requires a little investigating.
Level and Commitment
The first indicator of a company’s level of professionalism? Auditions. Some companies require dancers to try out at the start of every semester or school year, and take only students who dance at an intermediate or advanced level. Others allow anyone to show up to their open class, which probably won’t be as intense.
Also look at how many hours of class and rehearsal will be required. You’ll typically find one weekly 90-minute class, taught by company members or the occasional guest artist, plus rehearsals. Stanford University’s Cardinal Ballet Company, for example, holds a four-hour rehearsal each Sunday (one hour per piece). However, the company doesn’t give any company class, so most members rely on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday advanced ballet classes in Stanford’s dance division. Serious dancers at any student company almost always have to take outside classes through their school or a local studio to keep up their technique.
Most companies offer two or more performances a year, with a varied repertoire that typically includes at least one classical variation from a ballet such as Paquita or Swan Lake. Often, interested dancers also have the opportunity to choreograph on their peers.
Many troupes bring in guest artists to set work as well. Cardinal Ballet Company recently performed a piece by Amy Seiwert. Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which reaps the benefits of its New York location, works regularly with Emery LeCrone and other New York–based artists. “Choreographers love working with our company because we provide studio space and high-caliber dancers, and they get the opportunity to spend a whole semester working on a new piece,” says Silvern. Dancers from New York City Ballet occasionally perform with Columbia Ballet Collaborative as well.
At some troupes, such as Harvard Ballet Company, directors take dancers’ preferences into account while casting “We try to foster a collaborative, egalitarian environment,” says member Bridget Scanlon. Others, such as Columbia Ballet Collaborative, reflect the professional world by allowing choreographers to cast their own pieces.
Gateway to a Career?
Though some alumni go on to performing careers, a major benefit of student companies is the exposure to other aspects of the field. Dancers frequently end up working offstage in production, administration and development roles. Recent Stanford graduate Colette Posse notes that classmates who were in Cardinal Ballet Company now work in the administration of companies such as Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and have even founded their own contemporary ballet troupes.
“Even though a student-run company doesn’t have the prestige that would make it a stepping stone to a career in itself, dancers can use it to keep performing,” says Claremont Colleges Ballet Company co-founder Emily Kleeman, who takes advantage of the leadership opportunities she might not get anywhere else. “I personally am interested in choreography, so I use this experience as practice for my goal of one day running my own company.”
Compete in Cape Town
Classical ballet has a strong following in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Ballet Competition, founded in 2008 by Dirk Badenhorst of the South African Manzi Ballet, attracts talent from all corners of the globe—and a number of young North Americans have already made their mark there.
Competition dates: February 17–23, 2014
Application deadline: January 13, 2014
Divisions: Seniors (21–28), juniors (16–20), scholars (12–15)
Held: Every other year
Fee: $120, plus travel and lodging
Judging: A point system weighing artistry (30%), technique (30%), presentation (30%), grooming (5%) and preparation (5%)
2014 judges include: Marcia Haydée, artistic director of Ballet de Santiago; Ramona de Saa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba; Hae Shik Kim, artistic director of the Seoul International Dance Competition and Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet
Past participants: Hannah Bettes, Alys Shee, Aaron Smyth
“Think of yourself as a rubber band being pulled from the top and bottom to create one elongated line. My teacher John Adamson taught me you can’t simply ‘pull up’—you also have to have your legs firmly rooted below you with energy shooting downward.” —North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Emily Ramirez
Patricia Zhou remembers hearing her coach’s encouraging voice in her head as she competed at the Beijing International Ballet Invitational in 2010. Now in the corps of Staatsballett Berlin, Zhou says the days Viktor Kabaniaev spent coaching her ranked among the most productive of her training. “He made me practice my entrelacé diagonal over and over to get me to jump more and really kick the front leg. Even when I was tired!” she says. “That made me so much stronger.” Most importantly, Kabaniaev gave Zhou confidence. “I’d never gone to competitions thinking I had to win. But he pushed me, and had me believing in myself—and believing I could place.” Their work together paid off: Zhou left Beijing with a silver medal.
It takes more than dazzling technique to succeed at top competitions. You also need a superb coach. “Your coach is there to be your eyes, your cheerleader and your guide,” says Evelyn Hart, who coaches dancers in Toronto. The best coaches will help you improve your weak spots—and polish aspects of your dancing you didn’t even realize needed work. But finding the right match takes some searching.
What to Look For
Good coaches will fine-tune everything: the technical, the artistic and the stylistic details. “Avoid anyone who just runs the variation repeatedly without digging deeper,” says Edward Ellison, a New York teacher who has successfully coached dancers. “Each section of choreography should be carefully dissected, exploring how each individual part of the anatomy contributes to the whole.” Contact dancers who worked with the coach in the past to ask how supportive they felt the coach was, if he or she helped find solutions to the dancer’s problems, and assisted with practical details like costumes, makeup, hairstyle and music.
But to find a good coach for you, take stock of your personal weaknesses. Do you need to refine your interpretation or work on your upper body? Find someone whose dancers show those strengths. Check out online videos of a coach’s past competition winners to see if their style resonates with you. Look at their repertoire, how they accent the movement, and their costume choices.
Lastly, look for a coach who’s been through the competition you’re going to. You want an insider in your corner: someone who will know the level of talent, and understand the psychological pressure. “A coach who’s been before will know the politics of a competition,” Hart says. “It’s stressful: There might be very limited space and time, you might have to rehearse on stage at 3 a.m.—how do you handle that?” A good coach will guide you through it.
What to Ask
Talk frankly about your goals and expectations with a potential coach. What is the time frame? Will he or she come with you to the competition? What will the financial arrangements be? Determine if you will be paying the coach a flat fee or an hourly rate. The best coaches typically command up to $200 an hour, says Hart, and you may need to consider the costs of renting a studio, too. “Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions,” Ellison advises. “Get them to speak honestly about what you need to do to meet your goals, as well as your chances of succeeding.”
How to Know If It’s a Good Match
If you’ve found someone, take a few classes with them to see how you work together, suggests Youth America Grand Prix co-founder Larissa Saveliev (who often offers coach recommendations to YAGP participants). “Find somebody who’s good for you, not just good in general,” she says. “Don’t pick a coach who has a completely different style from what you’re used to.”
Look for a personality you respond to, whether that’s bubbly or demanding. And find an artistic vision you trust. “A coach will do as much as he or she can to help you prepare, but if you don’t have complete and utter willingness to take their advice, there’s only so far you can go,” says Hart. “They have to be the person you believe will take you to the best place.”
New USA IBC Head
Former Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella (who was recently given the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts) will lead the USA International Ballet Competition jury in 2014. He’s taking over from Bruce Marks, who led for two decades. As the American sister of the prestigious IBCs in Varna and Moscow, the Jackson competition is one of the oldest and most respected in the country. Top companies attend to scout dancers, and a USA IBC credit on a resumé is an impressive mark of distinction. ?Organizers are currently accepting applications.
Competition dates: June 14–29, 2014
Application deadline: November 15, 2013
Ages: Juniors, 15–18 years old; seniors, 19–26 years old
Held: Once every four years
Competitors accepted: Approximately 100 dancers
Jury: 13 members, with no more than one representative from any country
Awards: Gold, silver and bronze medals, cash prizes up to $15,000 and scholarships. Companies in attendance often offer one-season contracts and apprenticeships.
Past medalists: Isaac Hernández, Melissa Hough, Misa Kuranaga, Sarah Lamb, Sarah Lane, Daniil Simkin
Feedback: Although jury scores are not released, eliminated competitors are offered a private evaluation session to review the judges’ written comments and suggestions.
?“Your balance is like a baby’s mobile: All the pieces spin together smoothly and surely, but precariously at the same time—because with even a gentle touch, they can all go shaking in different directions. My mother doesn’t have a background in ballet, but one day she explained that to me, and it clicked!” —Tulsa Ballet principal Youhee Son
The summer I turned 16, my head swirled with “what ifs” as I counted down the days until the start of the Chautauqua intensive. I’d attended the program four years earlier, and the experience had been a harrowing one—my first lesson in the competitive nature of ballet. Leaving the temperate waters of my little pond, I’d found myself a very small, uncoordinated fish in a pool deep with talent. Now, I was going back to test myself again, this time in Chautauqua’s top level. Would I be as good as the other dancers? Would the teachers like me? Would I make friends?
Summer intensives are aptly titled. Their extreme demands can cause anxiety, nerves, jealousy and stress. But put down the question marks! Don’t let a negative state of mind keep you from soaking up everything your summer has to offer.
I Want to Be Asked to Stay for the Year-Round Program
As dancers, we set lofty goals: getting into the School of American Ballet, becoming a principal at American Ballet Theatre, being on the cover of Pointe! These are what Dr. Charlie Brown, a sports psychologist who consults with dancers from North Carolina Dance Theatre, calls “outcome goals.” While they’re important (they’re the stuff dreams are made of), you can’t measure yourself by these lengths alone. “More than anything else, a person’s confidence is based on how well they achieve their goals,” says Brown. Your goals shouldn’t only be things that are out of your control—like getting selected to stay for the year-round program.
A better idea is to create “performance goals,” such as consistently nailing triple pirouettes. These goals are more attainable and suited to your immediate abilities. But they can still be problematic, since obstacles like an injury or a slippery floor could prevent success. The best strategy is to make “process goals.” For example, instead of focusing on nailing triples, hold yourself accountable for executing the correction the teacher gave you the day before. After all, such corrections will help improve your turns, and showing you listen could land you a year-round spot.
I’m Afraid the Other Dancers Will Be Better Than Me
Ever heard the phrase “It’s all in your head”? In this case, it really is. “Stress is one of these things that you cause yourself,” says Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychology consultant who works with junior to Olympic-level athletes. According to Goldberg, the high-caliber dancers aren’t making you nervous; they’re just giving you more opportunities to feel that way. “What makes us nervous is how we react to the circumstances,” he says.
Some of the other dancers might be more advanced than you. But focusing on their talent will only deplete your confidence and cause anxiety. Make a list of your worries and cross off anything that is out of your power (what level you’ll be in, if your feet won’t be as good as your peers’). Focus on the things you will be able to control (getting a proper warm-up, taking all corrections as your own). And remind yourself that you were selected for the program because you deserve to be there.
What if I Don’t Make Friends?
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre apprentice JoAnna Schmidt was always afraid of being a loner. But, she says, “Remember that everybody is in the same boat: They may not display it, but they’re all nervous.” Don’t be afraid to sit with someone you don’t know at lunch; they’ll most likely be relieved that you did.
Being in competition with would-be friends can also be a barrier. But being friendly with your rivals is something every dancer needs to learn to do. “If you’re comfortable with the people you’re dancing with, it’s easier to grow together as opposed to just looking at each other as competition and nothing more,” Schmidt says. “It’s the same way in a company.”
I’m Nervous to Leave Home
Just as you’re most anxious to perform while waiting in the wings, the time leading up to your departure can be the most nerve-racking. Before leaving home, eliminate some of the stress by writing down a list of exactly what you want to accomplish during your summer intensive. It will help you to prioritize and keep your focus on what is essential. “One of the first things that happens under stress is that your memory starts going,” Brown says. “If you write things down, you just took away one of your demands because you don’t have to remember everything.”
Next, Brown says, gather your resources for the trip. Bring a few things that comfort you: a blanket your mother made, a photo of friends. Pack nutritious snacks so that you won’t have to look for healthy food options when you’re overwhelmed. “Make plans for regular contact with your support system,” he advises. Schedule a recurring Skype date with a friend or set up times to talk to your family on the phone. Once you arrive, scope out a quiet place where you can be alone when you want to be.
For me, that second summer at Chautauqua was one of the most fulfilling times of my dancing life—I knew that I deserved to be there. When I wasn’t cast as Aurora in the final performance of The Sleeping Beauty, I felt a little rattle of doubt. But then, on a sunny afternoon in July, I had the opportunity to rehearse my role as the Lilac Fairy alone in a studio with Patricia McBride, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Violette Verdy—an absolutely spectacular time to be dancing in the moment.
Keep In Mind:
-The level you’re in doesn’t matter as much as how you shine where you’re placed. Your teachers work with lots of students in multiple levels. You’ll stand out if you’re at the top of your class.
-You might go to the wrong program, and that’s okay. Without summer intensives, we would set our sights on a school where we wouldn’t feel appreciated or take a contract with a company in a city we’d hate.
-If a fellow dancer is unkind to you, it reflects badly on them, not you. Not everyone deals with competition well. If another student is particularly rude to you, it’s probably because she knows you’re good. Use her attitude as a challenge to get even better.
CPYB’s New Men’s Opportunity
Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is updating its men’s program, and to celebrate, it’s offering up to eight new all-inclusive scholarships. “Male dancers have a different path than the girls,” says school principal Nicholas Ade. “We’re making sure to give them the tools they need for successful careers.” In addition to new strength-training sessions, the program is bumping up men’s classes to three days a week, during which teachers will break down specific steps from ballets the men are currently rehearsing.
The scholarships cover tuition and housing for two years. “We want to make an extended commitment so that once a dancer gets here, he can just concentrate on the work,” says Ade. Male students ages 14–16 can apply online by June 15; ages 17–19 can apply by August 1. All auditions are done by video. See cpyb.org.
Tip for Landing a Post-Summer Contract
“If you’re interested in dancing for a particular company, go to their summer intensive after your junior year in high school, and again after your senior year. The staff will see your improvement over time, and you’ll be more likely to establish a real connection. Don’t be afraid to talk to a teacher about your interest, and follow up with an email. Some people leave summer intensives with a new mentor—and an ‘in’ at a company.” —Michael Owen, director of dance at Walnut Hill School for the Arts
To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.
“Don’t think about your shape when you first see Siegfried,” she tells soloist Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette’s Act II entrance. “This is not ‘port de bras.’ This is ‘Don’t touch me!’ ” Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.
Call it stage presence, call it the “it” factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.
But what is stage presence, exactly? “It’s doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with acting,” says former ABT principal Alessandra Ferri, herself famous for emotionally captivating performances. While technique and strong acting skills are essential components, stage presence goes beyond. “It’s what people call ‘charisma.’ It’s being in charge of the space around you and in tune with the energy of the audience.”
Ferri cites Rudolf Nureyev as the ultimate example: “You could not not look at him. Even when he was standing still, he galvanized your attention.” But while some dancers exude natural magnetism onstage, others struggle to capture it, giving technically brilliant but emotionally vacant performances. With stage presence seemingly so instinctive, is it possible to learn?
“I think presence stems from a seed that you either have or don’t have,” says Ferri. “It can’t be taught completely. But, you can help people who don’t have it improve.”
Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East’s pre-professional division (New York City Ballet’s charismatic soloist Chase Finlay is a former student) agrees to a point. “There are some special dancers where it’s innate—you can just see it, even at 6 years old. But I also think it can be learned, because you’re speaking about something within that comes out. And we all have those things within. When it’s cultivated and nurtured, stage presence can grow.”
There are a number of reasons why certain dancers lack presence. Some might be self-conscious about their dancing, or feel embarrassed showing emotion. Others simply over-prioritize technique. Hoover notes that sometimes shy dancers need the stage to really blossom. “They feel safer onstage than they do in rehearsal because the studio is so intimate.”
When students are struggling, Hoover uses music to coax them out of their shells. It helps them link feelings to movement quality. “Everyone has life experiences that are emotional,” she says. “I’ll ask them, ‘How does this music make you feel? What happened in your life that fits that feeling?’ ” As students practice associating music with their own experiences, they gradually learn to tap emotions without having to think of a specific event. She admits that the process takes time and conscious effort. “But then you’ll see that something’s changed in them,” she says. “They still might not have as much presence as the dancer who has it naturally, but you can tell that change has happened.”
Kolpakova often tells dancers to think of an inner dialogue to help them connect with a character. Back in rehearsal, she reminds Boylston that her movements must reflect Odette’s fear of Prince Siegfried. When Boylston tries again, her movement is noticeably more alive and expressive.
Sometimes dancers aren’t aware of how full their movements need to be to register onstage. “My teachers would say to me, ‘Irina, it’s not enough,’ ” Kolpakova recalls. “It has to be bigger so the audience sees you and understands.” In rehearsals, she reiterates her teacher’s advice during a mime scene between Odette and Siegfried. “More,” she says, encouraging Boylston not to be too tentative. She demonstrates, gesturing first to her heart, then opening her palms and lifting up through her body. “You’re saying this is me. Me. Stretch up, up with your chin.” Boylston listens and repeats the sequence, this time making a larger, more readable statement.
Of course, coaching can only take dancers so far. It’s up to the artist to push herself beyond her comfort zone—and that takes the courage to let go onstage as well as a willingness to practice. If necessary, experiment in front of the mirror at home for a while to help develop confidence. Remember, too, that the studio is a safe haven for mistakes.
Observing other artists can help. San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan, who projects a serene, ethereal quality onstage, always found Natalia Makarova’s presence particularly mesmerizing. As a young student, Tan studied videos of Makarova in Swan Lake, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet for inspiration.
But while outside sources can help improve stage presence, growth must ultimately come from within. Dancers must be willing to open up and shed their inhibitions—no one can do that for them. “We dancers can be stubborn and just do things the way we always do,” says Tan. “But to be better than ourselves, we have to be willing to change.”
Ballet Boot Camp
If you’re starting a new apprenticeship or trainee position next season, you’ll want to be at the top of your game come September. Don’t let the end of summer go to waste. Maryland Youth Ballet’s August Ballet Boot Camp is designed to zero in on your technique. On top of conventional classes like pas de deux and pointe, dancers take classes focused specifically on pirouettes, petit allégro and port de bras. They also build their strength through floor barre and conditioning. Two one-week sessions run from August 5–16 for $450 a week. Advanced dancers ages 15 to 25 can audition in-person during one of MYB’s year-round classes or by DVD or online video. See marylandyouthballet.org.
“We are not robots. You have to constantly work to improve or else you’ll fall back on bad habits. For every combination in class, I think, ‘How would I do this onstage?’ Maybe I will really present my heel in this développé and elongate my neck like a swan. I play little games with myself. Each movement can tell a story.” —Abigail Mentzer, Pennsylvania Ballet
Although it?’s not well-known in the U.S., Vancouver?’s Arts Umbrella conservatory is a contemporary ballet powerhouse in Canada. Alumni regularly go on to perform in top companies, such as Dresden Semperoper Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. The school has a particularly close connection with Emily Molnar?’s Ballet BC, where about half of the dancers are Arts Umbrella alumni. Molnar formerly served as Arts Umbrella?’s artist-in-residence, and she now mentors the advanced students during the school?’s summer Dance Intensive (which runs August 5–23 this year). Students get an inside look at her company—?plus a prime networking opportunity—?while collaborating directly with Molnar and Ballet BC dancers on a piece for a final performance. In addition, all levels take classes with instructors from Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal and Compañía Nacional de Danza, among others. Audition in person on April 7 or send a DVD. See artsumbrella.com.
Your Class Playlist
Need to give yourself a barre? Create a playlist of ballet classics on your iPad or iPhone with the app Ballet Class from balletto.net. It’s not quite as personalized as a live accompanist, but it’s close to the next best thing. You can control how many bars you’d like each song to play and manually alter the speed of each combination until you get the tempo you want. The full version ($9.99) comes with 52 songs that you can preset into a playlist—or you can try the Lite version of the app, which offers 12 basic tunes for free.
Don Quixote’s Kitri—feisty, independent and free-spirited—explodes with personality from the moment she leaps onstage. Fiercely stubborn, she and Basilio cleverly plot to marry against her father’s wishes. While Kitri is no demure princess, she displays a proud elegance uniquely her own. The Grand Pas de Deux in Act III is the ballet’s highlight, and Kitri’s variation, with its intricate pointework, fluttering fan and Spanish flavor, gives dancers a wonderful opportunity to explore their individuality.
As a former ballerina with the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Elena Kunikova performed Kitri’s Act III variation many times. She now coaches professionals in the role, including American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko, New York City Ballet’s Ana Sophia Scheller and the male divas of Les Ballets Trockadero. She recently shared her expertise on mastering some of the difficult moments.
Spanish Port de Bras
One of the variation’s biggest challenges lies in its stylized port de bras. “Character dance is not widely taught in the West,” Kunikova says, “so many young dancers don’t know how to move their arms with Spanish flair.” Dancers often place their hands on their hips by pulling their elbows back and sticking out their wrists. “I call it ‘chicken wings,’ ” says Kunikova. “Instead, the palm should be delicately placed on top of the tutu, not grabbing the hip. The wrist should be pressed down and the elbow should be pushed slightly forward (make sure to keep your chest open) while the fingers sustain an elegant classical form.” Each time the arms transition from the hips to second position (and in reverse), they must pass through first position.
Kunikova stresses the importance of coordinating the head with the rest of your body. For instance, she says, “It looks more impressive to look up on the développé à la seconde. Then, look lower during the passés while possibly fanning yourself. It gives more diversity and amplitude to the steps.”
Proper Fan Position
Manipulating the fan presents another challenge. “Rehearse the variation using just the port de bras, without dancing, to incorporate the fan without worrying about what’s happening from the waist down,” Kunikova says. She notes that dancers shouldn’t rest their elbow against the body when holding the fan. Initiate slower, larger fan movements with the elbow, but use the wrist to ?create quick, small flutters. For added security, dancers can attach the fan to their wrist with an elastic band.
The fan can help build tension and excitement through the variation, like during the échappé section. “You might keep it low in front of your chest for the first set,” says Kunikova, “then gradually add port de bras on the second and third sets to show the combination’s progression.” ??
The Final Footwork
The variation’s final section—a series of alternating hops on pointe across the stage (called taqueté in French)—is its trickiest. The hopping foot must maintain a cupped shape to properly support the body. “It’s the only moment in ballet vocabulary when we have to make the foot ugly,” says Kunikova. Keep your weight on the supporting leg to control balance, using a shallow plié. Engaging opposition in the legs and shoulders is very characteristic for Spanish-styled ballet, and it accentuates the body’s position changes.
Exploring Kitri’s Character
Kunikova sees many avenues of artistic interpretation. “Kitri’s character can be quite different,” she says. “She could be proud, playful, willful or humorous.” However, dancers should avoid trying to appear sultry. “I call it the ‘Black Swan impersonation.’ Too much sultriness, especially for younger dancers, isn’t appropriate or true to their age.” Keep in mind that the variation is part of Kitri’s wedding celebration. “She should be joyous!”
While Kitri’s variation allows for lots of individual expression, Kunikova advises young students first learning the dance to avoid overloading it with too many details. “Instead,” she says, “keep it simple and clear.” Flourishes can be added later with experience and practice.
At first glance, all summer intensives seem similar: days full of dancing. Yet the opportunities actually vary widely. The right teacher could plug you in to key directors. A prime performance opportunity could lead to a traineeship or even a company position. But how do you figure out which programs will really deliver? A few tricks can help you scope out your options.
Begin with the concrete: Read every last word of the acceptance package and study the school’s website. Pay attention to class sizes to see how much interaction you’ll have with the faculty. Then Google the program to find out where alumni have gone on to dance. Search for videos of the classes or performances to see the style and repertoire taught—and the level of talent being trained.
Run some name searches to trace the faculty’s connections. What are their backgrounds? Do they have current affiliations with companies you like? Pay attention to how long they’ve been teaching, and whether their curriculum is up-to-date with what companies expect now of dancers. Search for any interviews they’ve given; this could tell you their emphases in class.
Use your connections to get a sense of a program’s reputation. Start with your year-round teachers: Get their opinion on the programs you’re most interested in. They can contextualize a school for you, and explain its distinct characteristics and history. They might even be able to use their connections to your benefit. Michael Owen, director of dance at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, says, “I often make a phone call on behalf of a student, to make a school’s artistic staff aware of her specific talents.”
Also use online social networks to find dancers who have attended the program in the past. Ask how closely they got to interact with the director, whether company dancers ever took class, if ballet masters or artistic directors ever observed, and if they got to work with choreographers. Their responses will be more frank and nuanced than any information packet.
Keep an Open Mind
Don’t pigeonhole yourself by only focusing on your dream company’s school. Aara Krumpe attended the Joffrey Ballet’s summer program four times because she hoped to join the company, but she never received an offer. “It wasn’t the place for me,” she says. “Then I went to Ballet Austin’s summer program at age 19, and it was a much better fit: I was interested in the contemporary rep the company was doing. Now I’m a dancer there and I love it.”
Get the Scoop
Once you’ve done your research, what are the details you should really pay attention to? We broke down the highlights of two popular intensives.
Exploring Ballet With Suzanne Farrell
Director: Former New York City Ballet prima Suzanne Farrell. She is, of course, a direct link to her company, and she also stages co-productions with troupes such as Ballet Austin, Cincinnati Ballet, Sarasota Ballet and National Ballet of Canada.
Size: 30–36 students, all of whom take class together.
Faculty: Farrell teaches every class, so you have plenty of time to build a personal relationship.
Schedule: There are two two-hour technique classes per day, six days a week, focusing on Farrell’s interpretation of Balanchine technique. Students may get some partnering or conditioning; no other techniques are offered.
Location: The Kennedy Center in D.C., home of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
Alumni: American Ballet Theatre’s Nicola Curry, NYCB’s Dana Jacobson, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Evelyn Kocak, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s Jessica Lawrence and Jordyn Richter.
Performances: In the past, Farrell has choreographed on students for a small presentation.
Kaatsbaan Extreme Ballet
Director: Martine van Hamel, former ABT principal who now teaches at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
Size: 40 students are accepted per session, and split into four groups. (Kaatsbaan offers three sessions per summer.)
Faculty: Bonnie Mathis (former Boston Ballet II director) and Lisa Lockwood (former ABT dancer and a current teacher at Steps on Broadway), among others. Alessandra Ferri (former ABT principal) provides coaching. Master classes are taught by Ann Marie DeAngelo (former associate artistic director of Joffrey Ballet who has choreographed on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Nevada Ballet Theatre and ABT Studio Company), Franco De Vita (JKO principal), Kevin McKenzie (ABT artistic director and Kaatsbaan co-founder) and Craig Salstein (ABT soloist). Most faculty members are former ABT and Joffrey dancers who now teach, choreograph or direct.
Schedule: Morning technique class is taken all together or in groups, and the rest of the classes—including variations and coaching—are composed of one or two groups.
Alumni: Boston Ballet’s Paul Craig, Joffrey Ballet’s Jaime Hickey, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Andrew Daly.
Additional classes: Yoga, Pilates, flamenco, modern, composition, improvisation.
Repertoire: Usually a few classical variations and a group section from the same classical ballet are coached on all students. One or two new works by faculty are often created on students.
Performances: The final in-studio performance is informal, since the program’s focus is on training.
The Brits Are Coming
Want to learn more about the English style? There’s no need to fly across the pond. The English National Ballet School will hold its first summer intensive in the United States this year. The weeklong program will take place at the Ballet Theatre of Toledo in Ohio from July 22 to 27. There will be separate courses for advanced (ages 13–15), pre-professional (ages 16–18) and professional (ages 18+) dancers, plus evening master classes for intermediate students—all taught by ENBS faculty. Participants can ask to be considered for the school’s year-round program in London. Tuition is $900 for the full course or $50 per master class. Audition by DVD or web link. For more, see ballettheatreoftoledo.org.
“Once in a rehearsal, a choreographer said to me, ‘Your technique is there; now I want to see the texture in the movement—how a leg develops, or an arm.’ He wanted to see the work involved without my making it look difficult, just texturizing the steps. Those words have stuck with me throughout my career.” —BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz
Take out your address book: Two of the biggest ballet competitions for students are relocating this year.
The Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, formerly the Boston International Ballet Competition, will be held in New York City for the first time this June. “Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen gave me huge support in setting up my competition, but New York is where my home base is, so it’s much easier to put everything together right here,” explains founder Valentina Kozlova. “Plus, it’s the center of the dance world.” Other than a slight tweak to age divisions (18-year-olds will now be part of the seniors, instead of the juniors), everything else about the competition will run the same way it has for the past two years. The deadline for applications is May 1. See vkibc.org.
Also on the move is The American Ballet Competition. It launched in Miami in 2004, then took place in Texas from 2010 to 2012, and this year it will head north to Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Massachusetts. “We wanted to establish a presence in another cultural hot spot, such as New England,” says ABC artistic director Katherine C. Kersten. “Walnut Hill has been an important contributor at ABC for many years. Michael Owen, WH dance director, is on our jury and will continue to award a Walnut Hill scholarship.” This year’s ABC will run from June 5 to 8, and the registration deadline is May 8. Check americanballetcompetition.com for more information.
Paquita’s variations are some of ballet’s most celebrated examples of 19th-century classicism—and some of its most difficult. Interestingly, the solos we see today never existed in the original two-act ballet. Choreographed for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1846 by Joseph Mazilier, the story centers on a Spanish gypsy named Paquita, who saves the life of Lucien, a French aristocrat. When she discovers that she is herself of noble blood, they marry in a big celebration.
The famous grand pas de deux was added by Marius Petipa in 1881, when he revised the full-length Paquita for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. The variations didn’t come until a gala performance in 1896, when all of the reigning ballerinas of the day performed their favorite solo from a ballet of their choice. This one-act version stuck, while the full-length fell out of the repertoire.
Ballet West’s production honors this history, naming each solo for either its ballerina or its ballet of origin. The second variation, called “Pavlova,” is slow, lengthy and technically precarious, full of luxurious piqué arabesques and controlled pirouettes (Petipa choreographed it for Anna Pavlova in a different ballet). Demi-soloist Beckanne Sisk—with her expansive extensions, rock-solid balance and calm, centered demeanor—proved an easy choice for the role. “You need a lot of control for this variation,” says Sisk. “It’s so slow, there’s no hiding—if you’re not on, it’s obvious.”
A Regal Bearing
Although Paquita’s narrative no longer survives, Sisk still needed to reflect aristocratic elegance. Elena Kunikova, who staged BW’s production, helped her capture the light, lyrical approach that Pavlova was famous for, as well as the ballet’s detailed classicism and Spanish-styled épaulement. “Proper épaulement not only helps to define her character,” says Kunikova, “but it also captures the aura of the period.”
Sisk carefully observed the angle of Kunikova’s neck and shoulders whenever she demonstrated. “While I was dancing, I would picture Elena and try to mirror her,” she says. Kunikova stressed that Sisk keep her eyes focused somewhere specific, such as directly over her hands during the piqué arabesques or under the elbow in the bourrées. She also worked with Sisk on the tendu preparation before the bourrées, coaching her to initiate the port de bras with her breath and to feel resistance in her fingers, as if passing through water, to gain a soft, natural quality.
Sisk jokes that she practiced simple moments, like walking out on stage, more than the variation itself. The entrance and transition sections are surprisingly challenging. “One has to fill up long passages of music by simply walking and posing,” says Kunikova. “It’s not easy to stay in character when there are no steps.”
In order to project a poised, noble presence, Sisk needed to stay relaxed. She used her time backstage to find a Zen-like zone. “I would try to stay cool, calm and collected—the three Cs,” she says. “If you tense up, it’s just not going to look right.”
Stamina and Technique
The variation can be broken down into four main sections, and for Sisk, the second and third proved the most difficult. (“I like it that way, though,” she admits. “It’s nice to have the beginning and the end feel strong.”)
The second section calls for a set of bourrées, followed by a slow développé à la seconde into a relevé fouetté to arabesque. “I had to sacrifice some height in the développé side to prevent my leg from dropping in arabesque,” she says. Additionally, Sisk tried not to pull off her standing leg in anticipation of the piqué attitude that follows. “You can’t let your mind get ahead of what your body is doing. You have to finish the line first.” Yet once it’s time to piqué, “Really push off that front leg. Don’t be tentative, or you’ll never make it.”
She found the following section—a series of cabrioles landing in fifth to soutenu en dehors—the most exhausting. “You start to get pretty fatigued,” she says. “It’s been slow, slow, slow, and then suddenly the music speeds up and you have to jump.” To find the momentum to rotate all the way around in the soutenus, Sisk added a little extra oomph to her arms as she brought them in from second.
Because the variation lasts several minutes, Sisk initially struggled with her stamina. She worked gradually, section by section, to build endurance. “I would rehearse the first section by itself,” she recalls. “Then start over and do the first and second section together, then the first, second and third, until I finally got through the whole thing. By the third day of rehearsal, I could push through it.”
Less Is More
Turns come naturally to Sisk, so she looked forward to the pirouettes from fifth at the end of the variation. Still, the slow tempo presented a challenge. “You can’t punch the pirouettes,” she says. “You have to listen to the music and use less force.”
A solid fifth position preparation is another key to the turns’ success. Many dancers make the mistake of moving the front foot out of position in plié. “That just throws you off,” says Sisk. “Instead, take a second to feel your fifth, and breathe.”
The stakes couldn’t have been higher when Janessa Touchet joined Pacific Northwest Ballet School. It was her final year of training, and she’d moved 2,700 miles out of her comfort zone for an opportunity that, if all went well, could launch her career. But the experience soon turned sour. In a class full of outstanding talent, the teachers quickly found their favorites. Touchet wasn’t one of them. Unfamiliar with the nuances of Balanchine style, she received little encouragement, and the competitive environment overwhelmed her. “There were times when I would try to put myself in the front and other dancers would come stand right in front of me when the combination began,” she recalls. “I would just push myself to the back. I let it happen.” Many times, she wondered whether she should give up.
Favoritism has serious consequences. Especially in the final years of training, when every correction and bit of tailor-made advice is vital, being overlooked can mean being left behind. A teacher’s pet pupil gets more than an ego-boost. She gets the crucial support of a mentor. She gets the roles that challenge her technique and let her shine in performance. She gets the calls made on her behalf to company directors. It’s easy to resent the dancers who seem to use up all the praise. But instead of getting frustrated, be proactive and get the attention you need.
Who Becomes a Favorite?
Studios are naturally divided up between The Favorites and The Others. But teachers’ biases have less to do with students’ natural talent than you might think. “It’s a lot about simple things like students’ body language, their willingness to listen and to apply corrections,” says School of Richmond Ballet director Judy Jacob. Teachers want to be successful at their job just as badly as you want to become a great dancer. They gravitate toward the students who are most engaged: the ones who enthusiastically move to the front during center and join one of the first groups as the class moves across the floor.
Don’t hang back; show your eagerness to work and improve. Think about the impression you’re making from the instant you walk through the door. If there’s a dress code, follow it. Actively warm up before class instead of nonchalantly chatting with friends. Project a positive attitude. “Open your face and your eyes,” says Jacob. “Don’t fold your arms.”
Most importantly, make sure the teacher will feel that their time spent with you is worthwhile. “Teachers love it when they’re giving a correction to one student and can see that other students are paying attention and trying to apply that correction,” says Jacob. “That can really endear you to a teacher.”
Be Your Own Advocate
If you feel ignored, don’t just assume you’re not worthy of attention. “Most of the time the teacher just doesn’t even realize they’re overlooking someone, so talk to them about it,” says Marjorie Grundvig, co-director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. Approach your teacher immediately after class to ask when it might be convenient for the two of you to sit down for a few minutes. Then explain how you’re feeling and what you’ve been doing to try to improve. If she’s been giving you a correction you don’t understand, say so. Ask what you can do to get more opportunities.
Also, Grundvig often finds that when an advanced student doesn’t appear engaged in the studio, she is struggling in some other aspect of her life. Be sure to speak up when you’re under stress, or else teachers may write off your distraction as a lack of dedication.
When It’s Time to Go
It’s not necessary to be every teacher’s favorite in order to get meaningful direction. As long as you’re getting feedback, and you feel yourself improving, it’s okay to not be the best in your class. You also have to be realistic: There’s almost always going to be somebody more advanced than you—and if she has the talent to become the next Ashley Bouder, you can’t expect a teacher not to get excited about her.
Yet not every school is right for every student. Teachers’ preferences are as varied as their personalities. If you don’t feel your teacher is invested in you, and your attempts to improve the situation haven’t helped, you may consider seeking different training. Ballet is a subjective art, and your particular talents or style might be a better fit at another program.
For Touchet, who’s now a principal at Cincinnati Ballet, her time at PNBS was valuable despite her not feeling favored. Not only did it expose her to Balanchine technique, it helped her develop the competitive edge she needed to succeed once she became an apprentice at CB the next year. “Looking back, I learned that if I’m not getting attention, I can’t just stand in the back,” she says. “I need to fight for what I want.”
A Little Perspective
While it seems some students are destined to be loved by everyone, most will feel completely invisible to at least one teacher. It’s so common, in fact, that yes, even the guys go through it.
When Carlos Miguel Guerra was accepted to the Luis Casas Romero School of the Arts in Cuba at age 10, he was told he had barely made it. “A lot of the teachers didn’t believe in me,” he says. “They would tell my family that I should leave because I’d never be a ballet dancer, I didn’t have the right qualities.”
The lack of support was emotionally draining. After particularly rough classes, he would go home and spend hours watching videos of his idol, Jose Manuel Carreño. “It would inspire me and I’d forget what the teacher said,” says Guerra. “I would go in the next day and just try to work harder.”
Now a principal at Miami City Ballet, Guerra ultimately proved his teachers wrong. In fact, Guerra credits much of his success to the fact that he wasn’t a favorite as a student. “It made me stronger,” he says. “In the end it feels really good because you did it for yourself with hard work, not because somebody loved you. For me, that’s more gratifying.”
“After a weekend of performances, I sometimes take home videos of my shows to see where I can improve. Tension in my neck and left hand always top the list. One thing that helps is to pretend my hand is a paintbrush: As I port de bras, I ‘paint’ the floor or fence or ceiling.” —Callie Manning, Miami City Ballet principal soloist
After a season of Tchaikovsky, are you feeling the need to unleash your funky side? Check out Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s winter intensive. Advanced students are invited to dive into co-artistic director Dwight Rhoden’?s choreography. Through Complexions-specific rep and technique classes, dancers will discover the secrets to company members’ eye-
popping développés and whiplash turns.
Dates: December 27–31
Time: 10 am to 3 pm
Location: New York City
Classes: Contemporary ballet technique, Complexions repertory,
extracurricular dance (hip hop, yoga, etc.)
Ballet Goes Digital
Writing down corrections is one of the quickest ways to speed up your progress. Now, an app called Dance Journal gives you even more options for recording what you learned in the studio.
Saving notes on class is only the beginning. You can also include pictures and videos of yourself dancing, then classify and sort entries in an unlimited number of customizable categories. The app costs $1.99 and is available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
Equal Opportunity Competition
Among corps members looking to build their reputations and unknowns hoping to jumpstart their careers, New York International Ballet Competition is a favorite launch pad. Part of the competition’s popularity stems from the way it levels the playing field: Every dancer spends two weeks studying the same three pas de deux with the same coaches in the same studios. The only thing participants have to prepare ahead of time is one solo. Not only does this give every dancer an equal chance to shine, but participants also don’t have to spend personal money on weeks of their own pre-competition coaching. Other than airfare and costumes, everything is provided, from technique classes to room and board to any necessary medical attention—and even some New York City entertainment.
Application deadline: December 15
2013 dates: June 3–23
Held: Every other year
Rules: Dancers must enter with a competing partner, but will be judged individually.
Fees: $75 to apply
Ages: Females must be between 17 and 23, males between 18 and 24
Awards: In addition to gold, silver and bronze medals, ABT and The Joffrey Ballet both offer one-year contracts (however, not all awards are necessarily given each competition).
Alumni: Kathleen Breen Combes, Karina Gonzalez, Sarah Lamb, Ludmila Pagliero
Company: The Washington Ballet
Top prizes: Boston International Ballet Competition, Helsinki International Ballet Competition, USA International Ballet Competition, Seoul International Dance Competition, Varna International Ballet Competition
Pre-competition rituals: “Working my butt off! And before any performance, I try to get to a mental place that I call ‘home.’ Nobody’s there but me and the ballet.”
Backstage music pick: “The song that Lil Wayne made for Michael Phelps called ‘I’m a Go Getta.’ Or Coldplay, Eminem or R. Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ or ‘The World’s Greatest’ from the Ali movie.”
Why he keeps competing: “In a company, you don’t always get a lot of individual attention. But when you train for a competition, every little thing is scrutinized. I grow a lot. It’s also a great networking tool. So many directors and prominent choreographers come to scout.”
What he does with his trophies: “My mom takes them. Each time, she’s like, ‘You’re gonna mess this up or lose it.’ But she likes to have them, so I’m fine with it.”
Worst mistake: “Holding back because I didn’t want to make a mistake.”
Favorite competition memory: “My first competition. I didn’t get a medal, but I was able to just let go and dance completely and leave everything on the stage. It was the first time in my life that someone told me they cried watching me dance.”
School: The Royal Ballet School
Top prizes: Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix
In the wings: “I always review the storyline of the ballet and how my variation fits in that. I try to convince myself that I’m actually my character and this is happening to me. Then I pray.”
Good luck charm: “An energy wand that my friend’s mom (who’s a bit of a hippie) gave me last year. It’s literally just a little bronze-colored stick, five or six inches long. But it’s supposed to pull all of the negative energy around you into the wand and then give out positive energy. Ever since she gave it to me, it’s come with me to every competition.”
Worst mistake: “This year at YAGP Regionals, I fell during my Giselle variation. I was just doing a single turn! But I got back up and finished. My teacher always says, ‘If anything goes wrong, you still have to bow like it was the best dance ever.’ “
Strategy for nerves: “I stop thinking about the competition and focus on something completely random, like puppies.”
Dealing with the rivalry: “I like the competitive environment. It pushes me. Seeing all of those amazing dancers makes me want to be better. I want to be the best, I guess.”
School: Southland Ballet Academy
Top prizes: Youth America Grand Prix, Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards
Pre-performance ritual: “I always eat a little piece of chocolate before I dance.”
Good luck charm: “My mom writes notes like ‘good luck’ or ‘have fun’ in my pointe shoes.”
Strategy for nerves: “It’s hard in the early rounds because everybody is sizing each other up. But once it gets down to the end, you become friends with the other dancers and can just talk backstage.”
How she breaks the ice with her competitors: “Sometimes I’ll compliment someone’s tutu. And the usual: ‘Good job,’ ‘good luck.’ ”
What she tells herself right before going on: “Have fun, and whatever happens, happens. You’re lucky to be doing this right now, so enjoy it.”
The schedule at most summer intensive auditions is simple: Show up early, get a number, warm up, take a class and do your best. Merde!
But trying out for a conservatory or Bachelor of Fine Arts program is a different ball game: Ballet class is only the first step of many. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Craig Black auditioned for seven college dance programs while finishing high school. With a strong classical background, he was confident in the ballet classes. “But with any modern, I felt in over my head,” he says. “It got better as I kept auditioning, but the first couple were pretty rough.”
The ballet world has changed, and colleges want students who are willing to adapt to its new demands. “Most choreographers these days rely on dancers for creative input, and they’re looking for people who enjoy that collaborative interchange,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, dance department chair at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Consequently, even the most ballet-focused undergraduate programs now ask dancers to improvise, speak onstage and perform contemporary dance. Although every college is different, they’re all looking for the same thing: smart artists in the making.
Study the School
“The first step is to know what kind of program you’re auditioning for,” says Butler University dance department chair Larry A. Attaway. Is it strictly academic, with dance as an emphasis? Is it conservatory study, mostly in the studio? What kind of shoes will you be wearing?
“Butler’s focus is classical ballet,” he explains, “and we’re a conservatory-type program inside a liberal-arts university.” The audition consists of two ballet classes; the first is only for new applicants, the second is with current Butler students. (Nearly all programs post detailed admissions requirements on their websites, and don’t be afraid to ask questions by phone or email.)
At Tisch, prospective students spend more time away from the barre since the school wants high-level proficiency in both ballet and contemporary techniques. “We’re looking for movement sensibility and command of vocabulary in each,” says Lavagnino. Strong skills in a style such as Cunningham or Graham are useful. After a ballet class and contemporary combinations, selected students are interviewed and asked to perform short solos. Hopefuls must also pass NYU’s common application.
At the University of Utah, ballet department professor Richard Wacko sees a lot of dancers simply looking for great training: “They’re not necessarily thinking about academics. They’re thinking it’s like a ballet academy. Well, that’s problem number one.” To get into Utah’s ballet program, students need at least 860 on their SATs (or an ACT composite 18 or higher), and at least a 2.6 GPA. “Sometimes we’ll want to take a student,” says Wacko, “but no matter how great they are in the studio we just can’t accept them academically.”
The Juilliard School likewise attracts students who just want to dance, dance, dance — and since it’s a conservatory, they do a lot of it. Its audition has five components with four cuts in between. Pointe work isn’t required, but solos are, plus phrasework, an in-person interview with faculty and an essay on one of three subjects.
Black says that learning choreography on the spot was an especially difficult part of his audition for Juilliard, from which he graduated in 2011. “That’s where they see how quickly you learn, how detail-oriented you are, what your musicality is like,” he says. “It’s also scary because you don’t know what they’re going to teach you.”
Tell Your Story
After ballet and modern classes at Purchase College, State University of New York, select students are invited to share a 90-second solo. But, as at many schools, first they’ll have to answer some questions during a brief chat. “We want to see if students are articulate, if they express themselves well verbally,” says Wallie Wolfgruber, director of Purchase’s Conservatory of Dance, which emphasizes both technique and composition. A written statement of intent, less than one page, is also part of the application. “To have a career in dance, you need to be able to talk about your art form,” she emphasizes. “You need to know what’s going on in the field. You can’t ‘just dance’ anymore.”
Even at The Boston Conservatory, where students focus primarily on performance, dance division director Cathy Young confirms that your words are more important than ever before: “What are you thinking about? Why do you want to be in this field? Those things are as important as what’s happening physically.” Young advises auditioners to approach their interviews not solely looking to explain what they’ve already done, but also to show how receptive they are to growing artistically and absorbing new information. An audition is competitive by nature, she admits, “but try not to think about it that way—think of it in terms of how ready you are to develop yourself to the fullest extent that you can.”
Know Yourself—and Don’t Be Afraid to Show It
While Boston applicants are taking a ballet class, a modern class and performing a short solo, Young asks herself two questions: “Is there a spark there? Do we get a sense of who this person is besides someone who’s simply doing the steps? To me, those are what make a great performing artist. We’re not looking for cookie-cutter dancers.”
The more things you’ve tried, even just once, the more evident your unique point of view as a future artist will be. Black offers this advice for ballet dancers considering college: “Prepare as much as you can. Work with different teachers and choreographers. You’ll never know exactly what each college is looking for, but you can be as open and versatile as possible in the way you dance, your training and your mindset.”
Body Boot Camp
This fall, step out of your comfort zone and into a lateral T. Renowned Horton instructor Kat Worthington is offering a Horton technique workshop at the Alonzo King LINES Dance Center in San Francisco. Horton is one of the most technically demanding styles of modern dance—and one of the best for ballet dancers. Its focus on extensions and working in parallel challenges your balance, coordination and strength. Worthington, who has seen Horton advance the technique of many ballet dancers describes it as “boot camp to strengthen your body and stretch it out.”
Dates: November 3–December 15 (Saturdays from 1:15–2:45 p.m.)
Location: Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, San Francisco, CA
Tuition: $100 special until October 20
Few people would think of Tennessee as a “dance hub.” But each fall, the Tennessee Dance Festival brings in top instructors from around the country for a weekend of master classes. Faculty include Ballet San Jose artistic consultant Wes Chapman, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Shawn Black and former Atlanta Ballet dancer Anne Burton Avery. The program also offers a student choreography showcase and an audition for summer study scholarships of $500 that dancers can put toward the school of their choice.
Dates: October 19–21
Registration Deadline: October 15
Requirements: Dancers must be at least 12 years old and training at an intermediate or advanced level.
Classes: Ballet, modern, jazz, tap, lyrical, hip hop, belly dance, African dance, composition, improvisation, aerial, Pilates, yoga, kinesiology
Location: Chattanooga, TN
Ballet Goes Digital
The iTunes store is quickly filling up with great ballet apps (including Pointe’s!). One of the best for students is “Ballet is Fun.” It might have a pretty uninspired name, but don’t be fooled—the app has 325 high-definition videos that are full of tips for both beginner and advanced dancers. Former American Ballet Theatre, Australian Ballet, Houston Ballet and New York City Ballet members offer demonstrations that reveal training secrets and help you work on your technique. You can create custom playlists of videos you like, review tricky steps in slow motion and listen to audio explanations. Download it to your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch or Apple TV for $14.99.
“When I was at the School of American Ballet, Suki Schorer knew I was dating Seth Orza (now my husband). To get the curve that the head should make in écarté, she’d tell me to pretend that Seth was leaning in to kiss my cheek. I would bend my neck, extend my cheek and turn a deep shade of pink. Needless to say, the image has stuck with me all these years!” —Sarah Ricard Orza, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist
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You’ve rehearsed for weeks for this competition, and it’s finally here. You’re up, you ate your Wheaties...now what? Class is offered in the morning, but you won’t go on until hours afterward. Competition days are tricky. How should you spend the time before you perform so that you’re in the ideal state—both physically and mentally—to dance your best?
The Right Start
Valentina Kozlova, who regularly prepares her students at Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York for competitions, advises starting your day with a “one-hour, everything” class. Most competitions offer this type of short, intense morning warm-up. Ideally, there should be a barre with a lot of tendus and dégagés to get you on your legs, along with plenty of chances to stretch and practice your extension. In the center, make sure to do adagio, pirouettes, and petit and grand allégro. Push yourself just enough to get warm and feel strong.
However, taking an unfamiliar type of class could throw you off. If what the competition is offering won’t be right for you, don’t take it. (Unless, of course, it’s part of the adjudication process.) Instead, give yourself a thorough self-taught class or take one from your coach.
“Most theaters have studios, and usually you can ask to rent one out ahead of time,” explains Sasha De Sola, a dancer at San Francisco Ballet who won awards at the USA International Ballet Competition, Varna International Ballet Competition and Youth America Grand Prix. Contact competition administrators in advance to see if you can rent space for class and/or extra rehearsals.
Fight Fatigue and Injuries
There’s a fine line between pushing yourself and overexerting while warming up. “Pay attention to what your body needs,” De Sola advises. Sometimes she let herself slow down or modify combinations if her muscles felt tired.
If you have an injury, ask your coach how you can avoid irritating it before performing. And tell the teacher giving class, suggests Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. That way, they’ll understand your combination modifications, and might even offer helpful suggestions.
Doing light exercises such as tendus and ab work throughout the day will help you stay on your center without getting overtired. De Sola used to give herself a second barre a few hours prior to competing. Shortly before putting on her costume, she did stretches and Pilates core exercises. Then she would head to the wings wearing booties, legwarmers, pants, a zip-up jacket and a scarf over her costume.
Tackle the Trouble Spots
There are always tricky parts in a variation. Should you rehearse them on competition day? “It depends on the dancer,” says Kozlova. “For most I would say yes, practice difficult parts, but for some dancers, it’s not the best thing to do.”
If you tend to psych yourself out on performance days, don’t go over challenging jumps and turns at the last minute. Instead, think back to your best rehearsals and imagine how you felt during them. “Be confident in what you’ve worked on so far,” says De Sola. “Once you’re at the competition, not much is really going to change.” You won’t improve the number of pirouettes you can do in the moments before taking the stage—you just want to find your center and the right mindset to perform them.
But what if you do go over a troublesome section, and the final rehearsal doesn’t go well? “Just let it go and re-center your mind,” De Sola says.
Try not to watch other performances while waiting in the wings. Getting engrossed in others’ dancing could make you nervous or subliminally lower your expectations for yourself. Focus on your performance and your body.
De Sola says that visualizing herself dancing her variation as she listened to the music in her headphones helped her. “Also,” she adds, “putting on my makeup was a big part of the overall warm-up ritual for me.” Everybody has different ways of getting in the zone. Figure out yours ahead of time.
De Sola suggests keeping your regular schedule as much as you can. “That being said, you never know what’s going to be thrown at you,” she says. Sometimes the judges decide to take a long break right before your variation; sometimes there are technical difficulties. “At Varna in 2006, it was outdoors, so you had to deal with the weather, bugs, and the floor was just wood panels with nails jutting out!” says De Sola. “Also, we had tech rehearsals one or two days before the competition in the middle of the night—like at 1 or 2 am. You just always have to be prepared.”
Terrified doesn’t quite express how Boston Ballet’s Kathleen Breen Combes felt when choreographer Helen Pickett chose her to dance the opening solo for Pickett’s new ballet, Etesian: One and a half minutes of pure improvisation. In deafening silence. Ninety seconds suddenly seemed like an eternity.
“It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done,” Breen Combes says. “I’m a ballet dancer. I like being told what to do!”
Before Pickett came to Boston to choreograph Etesian in 2006, Breen Combes had little improv experience. “My tendency was to choreograph something in my head beforehand,” she says. “But Helen was adamant that I be in the moment. She didn’t want to see the same thing twice.”
Most ballet dancers have to improvise at some point in their careers, especially since more companies are adding contemporary works to their repertoires. But while their modern dance cousins seem to glide effortlessly into choreographic spontaneity, ballet dancers often feel self-conscious, resistant and inhibited.
Get Over the Fear
“One reason ballet dancers have a difficult time letting go is because they’re not often asked to contribute to their art,” says Pickett, who first started using improvisation with William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. “A dancer who is accustomed to being told what to do can have a very hard time making decisions in the studio.”
If dancers approach their work from a right/wrong standpoint, they judge themselves too harshly, numbing their imagination. “They see what’s wrong instead of seeing possibilities,” says Pickett. Instead, dancers should try to shift to a mindset where process takes precedence over the result. “Allowing choice to be an active part of your work not only builds confidence, it also builds identity,” says Pickett. “I see more of the human behind the dancer guise when I ask for their contribution.”
It’s Part of Your Toolkit
Some directors include improvisation during their audition process—and it’s not always the dancer’s choreographic skills that are evaluated. “When someone auditions, I don’t necessarily expect them to be good improvisers,” says James Sewell, artistic director of the James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis. “I can teach them that. What I can’t teach is an open-minded, hungry attitude.” Sewell’s ballets are often a blend of set choreography and improv, so he needs dancers who are willing to think on their feet. “Someone who throws themselves into it and says, ‘I don’t know if I’m any good, but I’ll go for it’—that’s the quality I look for.”
Practice Letting Go
Like ballet, improvisation takes practice. “It isn’t just doing whatever you want,” Sewell says. “It’s learning how to craft a well-choreographed dance in the moment. You have to get into the mindset for a while and let it assimilate in your bones.”
Improvisation classes are a great place to start. In a traditional class, teachers may give a set phrase, then ask students to reverse it, transpose sections, change directions, play with levels or adjust tempos, gradually opening the parameters to allow room for new movement ideas. In Forsythe-based improvisation, which Pickett teaches, emphasis is also placed on fragmenting different parts of the body and extending limbs beyond their natural reach. (See sidebar.) All through her classes, Pickett asks questions, encouraging students to participate and voice their opinions.
Gaga, the movement language developed by Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin, incorporates some improvisation as well. The instructor uses imagery to prompt dancers to explore movement. Seattle-based Gaga instructor Danielle Agami has noticed that ballet dancers sometimes need time to adjust to Gaga’s questioning philosophy. “It’s hard because ballet has a specific aesthetic, while Gaga says, ‘We don’t want to be sure, we just want to research possibilities,” she explains. “You have to practice letting go with your brain and improving the connection between your mind and body.”
Remember that improvisation stems from your existing knowledge. “It doesn’t just come out of the ether,” says Pickett. Rather, dancers pull ideas from their own mental libraries and a lifetime of technique—and the more details they glean from an initial set phrase, the easier it will be. “That realization helps quiet the fear.”
And when things go wrong? “Laugh at yourself,” says Sewell. Besides, he continues, the result may be more interesting. “Your body goes into pure instinct mode and you’re forced to make choices so fast that you can’t micromanage them. A mistake can open the door to the magic.”
Breen Combes’ initial fears about improv subsided as she grew more comfortable in the moment. She learned to regroup through stillness when she wasn’t sure what to do next, and to not always face front. “We have a whole other side of the body that we never think to use,” she says. Suddenly, one and a half minutes seemed like nothing. “I wanted my solo to be longer by the end of the run.”
William Forsythe’s improvisation system, called Improvisation Technologies, creates movement through a series of spatial tasks. Helen Pickett always starts her Forsythe-based classes with an exercise that uses cross hemispherics, in which you continually cross the body’s midline with your limbs. For example, you’ll touch the right hand to left elbow, then slide the left hand behind the right knee, followed by the right hand to the back of the left shoulder, and finish with the left hand brushing down the right leg to the pinky toe. After repeating to the other side, students then reverse the phrase. “It starts with four cross hemispherics, but you can work up to however many you can remember,” says Pickett. “This trains the dancers’ memory, warms them up and allows them to move beyond their natural reach.”
Pennsylvania Ballet’s New School
For the past 20 years, Pennsylvania Ballet has been one of the only major companies in the U.S. without an affiliated training program. That changes this fall with the launch of the new School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
Director William DeGregory, who also heads Pennsylvania Ballet II, says the technique taught is Balanchine-influenced but varied enough to train dancers to perform PAB’s current range of repertoire. “It’s not all about the pirouettes and how many tours you can do,” he says. “We want to teach students how to perform as human beings, to dance with personality.”
For its inaugural year, the school accepted 120 students, split among six levels. All weekday classes will take place in the evenings so dancers can attend regular high school. Technique will be followed by pointe class three times a week for the higher levels, and dancers will also take partnering, modern and character. All students will have opportunities to perform with the company whenever possible.
The school’s inaugural summer intensive will take place in 2013. For more, see paballet.org.
Welcome to Miami
Florida’s beach bums will be joined by bunheads this fall during the International Ballet Festival of Miami. The event features gala performances; dance-inspired works at a fine art exhibition; a series of dance films, including First Position, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance and Makarova: In a Class of Her Own; plus workshops and master classes.
Dates: August 24–September 16
Performance highlights: International Young Ballet Medal Winners (August 31, September 1), Étoiles Grand Classical Gala (September 15), Festival Closing Gala of the Ballet Stars (September 16)
Awards: “A Life for Dance” lifetime achievement award to choreographer Heinz Spoerli; “Criticism and Culture of Ballet” lifetime achievement award to René Sirvin, a French journalist who writes for Le Figaro
Past participating companies: English National Ballet, Staatsballett Berlin, Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, Ballet de Santiago
?”Your legs are the longest part of your body—?to not use them fully makes everything harder! Really thinking about my plié helps the height of my jumps incredibly.”? —Amar Ramasar, New York City Ballet principal