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Dancers in Brendan Fernandes' exhibit "The Master And Form," shown here at the Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo by Brendan Leo Merea, courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.

It sounds like a ballet dancer's worst nightmare: hold extensions and splits for a prolonged period, improvise in a cage and on a rope, and execute a ballet barre to performance standards. Do it with no music, wearing just a leotard and tights for an audience that's only two feet away, staring at every move.

Scary as that may sound, that's what the dancers in "The Master And Form" are doing in nine shows a week through September 22 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The exhibit, by Chicago-based artist Brendan Fernandes, is part of the Whitney Biennial 2019, which showcases the "latest developments" in American art.

"When dancers are performing, the feats look effortless," says Fernandes. "But it's labor, and dancers are masochists. I wanted to show the pain and the pleasure."

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Samantha Klanac Campanile and Joseph Watson in Nicolo Fonte's "Where We Left Off." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

In the final moments of Jiří Kylián's strenuous Return to a Strange Land, Samantha Klanac Campanile made sure her exhaustion didn't stop her from savoring the moment. She looked around The Joyce Theater as the lights began to dim and soaked up her last scheduled appearance there.

"I took a mental picture because I thought, I'm never going to do this again," she said. In September of 2016, after over 14 years with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Campanile retired. She and her husband moved back to Buffalo, New York, where they both grew up and first dated in high school. She settled into a new life as a fitness instructor and gave birth to daughter Anja in July 2017.

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Nitting (in orange tights) in The Wizard of Oz, her first performance with Kansas City Ballet. Bruce Pruitt & East Market Studios, Courtesy KCB.

Courtney Nitting started her first season with Kansas City Ballet last fall with the normal rituals of company life: headshots for the website, ordering her customized pointe shoes and claiming a spot at the barre. Each of these simple things was a "pinch me" moment she thought might never come.

"I still can't believe it," says Nitting. "I'm in a company for real."

It took Nitting, 21, more than three years of auditions to get a company contract. Her talent and passion brought her close to her dreams several times: Prestigious companies expressed interest but not job offers, and a year in a second company didn't produce a contract. Still, she never stopped trying, enduring about 200 auditions, with $9,000 in related expenses.

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Ballet Careers
NYCB ballet master Craig Hall with Peck onstage. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

How does Justin Peck do it all? The Tony-award-winning resident choreographer at New York City Ballet is still performing as a company soloist. Yet he somehow manages to have his work performed by companies all over the world.

Like most busy choreographers, he has répétiteurs who stage his work. When Peck started choreographing for NYCB, Albert Evans was the ballet master at his side, but he passed away unexpectedly in 2015. The sudden, tragic loss, combined with his rapid success, meant Peck had to quickly find a group of trustworthy stagers. He turned to dancers he'd worked with, all in their late 20s or early 30s, who had no experience staging ballets.

The opportunities Peck had to offer changed their career trajectories, and gave them a chance to be part of the legacy he's building. "I feel like, how did this happen to me?" says Patricia Delgado who stages Peck's work, and who is also his fiancé. "I grew up idolizing Balanchine and Robbins, but I knew when I passed it on, I'd have to say I learned it from so-and-so. I feel lucky now to be able to pass on work born in my generation."

We caught up with four of Peck's busiest "right hands."

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Hellebuyck and Michael Davis in Abdur-Rahim Jackson's "aBnOrMaL Normal." Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios, Courtesy KCB.

Molly Smolen started her professional career at age 14 as an apprentice with Cincinnati Ballet, and then joined American Ballet Theatre at 15 years old. Onstage, her talent and technique made her fit in with adults, but offstage, her young age caused problems.

Smolen, a now retired principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, struggled to handle the responsibility of a full-time job while living on her own in New York City. Her technique slipped due to long layoffs and repertoire limited to corps work. At 16, her body began to change, which led to humiliating experiences, like being cut from Swan Lake after she was told her thighs were too big.

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Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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Health & Body
From left: Erin Arbuckle in rehearsal for a new work by Richard Isaac. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy Arbuckle; running the 2015 NYC Marathon. Photo by MarathonFoto, courtesy Arbuckle.

When Erin Arbuckle takes ballet class wearing her New York City Marathon shirt, teachers often ask her, "You didn't actually run that, did you?" She did, twice, and she's running again this year on November 5.

Arbuckle, 28, a graduate of School of American Ballet and a freelance dancer who has performed with Ballet Next and Emery LeCrone Dance among others, is a rare ballerina who not only runs but has taken on the challenge of a marathon.

"If I can run 26 miles, I can handle a two-minute variation," she says.

Ballet dancers are taught to save their bodies for dance and avoid injury from other activities. While low-impact cross-training like swimming is encouraged, running is generally considered too high impact.

"I was told it would give me huge calves and thighs and damage my knees," Arbuckle says.

Her two foot surgeries were from dance injuries though, not running, and her body is holding up well despite what she was told to expect.

Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, generally advises dancers to run only as a warm up. "Running for 5 to 10 minutes before ballet class to move the large muscles of the body is useful," she said. "Beyond that, you start to have risks."

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