To The Corps

Ask Keenan McLaren how she felt at the start of her first season with Dayton Ballet in 2005, and she’ll have one word for you: terrified. “I was youngest person in the company, and I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “But I reminded myself that I have a certain level of training, and I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think that I was capable.” After landing a job in a company, adjusting to life in the corps can be daunting for any new professional. We asked three recently hired dancers for advice for ensuring a successful first year.

During the first weeks of Emily Bowen’s contract with Houston Ballet, which began in June 2006, she was
nervous that she would accidentally offend dancers ranked above her. She learned the ropes by befriending a
principal dancer. “She told me who stood where, who went in what group and who to probably stay away from,” says Bowen. Overall, though, she adds, “I expected it to be a little more cut-throat. But if the other dancers seem friendly, you have the chance to have someone you can go to who has gone through the same thing.”

While you shake those initial nerves, be ready to hit the ground running. “At beginning of the season, it was like being shot out of a cannon,” says Adrian Fry, a first-year dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre who studied with Omaha Theater Ballet School and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “Within the first 10 days, we were learning six different pieces because of the time that certain repetiteurs could be there. I took it in stride and was really excited to start working.”

McLaren was surprised by the sheer amount of choreography she was expected to learn in her first year at Dayton. “Often when a new company member is primarily performing corps work, they’ll be asked to understudy leads—sometimes more than one! This is definitely a challenge, because you are learning double the choreography and the responsibility is huge,” says McLaren. “You are expected to know the role and be able to go in at a moment’s notice, even if someone is just out sick. It can be a wonderful opportunity if you do get the chance to
go in, because your director gets to see you in a different light.”

Maintaining your physical endurance throughout a full day of company class, rehearsal and even an evening
performance is key. “I think because there’s more emphasis on rehearsal, you have to save your energy source,” says Fry. “We work really hard in class, but we also know that we need to keep our tanks filled up throughout the day, because there are times when we work from 10 to 5:30 straight.” Cardio and weight training at a local gym prior to her start with the company helped McLaren survive long rehearsal days. “If you cross-train, your stamina will just fly through the roof, and that makes those long days so much easier,” she says.

Also expect to make independent practice a personal priority. “When you have rehearsals as a company member, it’s not to go over what you learned in the last one,” says Bowen, who studied previously at North Carolina School of the Arts and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “You’re already expected to remember everything so you can keep learning more choreography. So you have to take time out of your personal life to come to the studio and work on things. That’s how you get promoted and how you get good roles, and then the artistic directors and the ballet mistresses and masters can trust you.”

The transition from being a senior student at your dance school—where your solo work and individual talents were
likely recognized—to becoming a team player in the corps also requires a great deal of focus. “In class, you’re working on your individual needs and focusing on what you need to improve as a dancer. When you’re in the corps, it’s not about you at all,” says McLaren, who studied at Boston Ballet School and danced with Ballet Austin II.

Instead of aiming for your highest extension, your positions must exactly match those of your fellow dancers. Yet, she says, “It’s a very rewarding experience, because when everyone is really feeling together, there’s a certain energy that flows through the group, and it’s a very different feeling than doing 32 fouettés.”

Like most students, Bowen grew accustomed to praise and acknowledgement from her teachers, and the absence of that in company life was an unexpected adjustment. “In a company, if you do something well, you don’t hear about it; you usually hear about it if you do something wrong,” she says. “When you see you’re not getting all of the feedback you want, it can be discouraging, but it’s actually a good thing.”

Your first company season brings the chance to develop your own sense of artistry beyond what you may have been able to accomplish as a student. “I see this year as bridging the gap between dancer and artist,” says Fry. “When you’re in a really heavy professional training program... I just felt like I was cultivating my technique and getting on my leg and working on my jumps. It was really athletic... but I didn’t feel like an artist.”

Bowen agrees. “Artistry is everything. It helps more if you just start thinking about artistry in your last year in school, because once you get in a company, you’re expected to already have all the technique and start to show yourself in your dancing,” she says. “I wish someone had told me that.”

Ballet Stars

For many a bunhead, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is not just a holiday tradition, but a rite of passage. The variation, with its tinkling celesta, bourrées and petit battus, is one that all ballet dancers are familiar with, and getting the opportunity to perform it often represents moving into new realms in your training or career. Such was the case for Soviet ballerina Ekaterina Maximova. In this 1957 clip, the 18-year-old aspirant performed the Sugar Plum variation at a ballet competition, where she represented the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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Getty Images

For any young dancer performing in The Nutcracker, Marie (aka Clara, depending on the production) is a dream role. But Charlotte Nebres, who will be playing Marie in New York City Ballet's Nutcracker this year isn't just bringing her own dream to life—she's also making history.

Charlotte is the first black dancer to ever perform the role of Marie in NYCB's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, which dates all the way back to 1954. Charlotte was, of course, hugely excited to perform the role of Marie, but, according to the New York Times, when her mother told her that she was the first black dancer cast in the role, she said "Wow. That seems a little late."

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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