Ballet Stars
Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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Ballet Stars
Jasmine Jimison as the Fairy of Playfulness in The Sleeping Beauty. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Jasmine Jimison is just 17, but she's already experiencing a fairy-tale ballet career: In her first year as a San Francisco Ballet apprentice, Jimison made sparkling main- stage debuts as Cupid in Don Quixote, the Ballerina Doll in The Nutcracker and, in The Sleeping Beauty, the Fairy of Playfulness and the Enchanted Princess, partnered by principal dancer Esteban Hernandez in the Bluebird pas de deux. Her tenure as an apprentice came to an abrupt end when artistic director Helgi Tomasson promoted her to the corps in March, just eight weeks into the season.

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Trending
Newly appointed principal WanTing Zhao in Helgi Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

San Francisco Ballet has announced its 2019 company promotions, and artistic director Helgi Tomasson has elevated five talented young artists who all started in the company's corps de ballet. With several world premieres along with Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the full-scale Jewels planned for the 2020 season, there will be ample opportunities for these dancers to shine on the SFB stage. Read on to learn more about them, and congratulations to all!

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Ballet Stars
The Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Svetlana Avvakum, Courtesy Kennedy Center.

Before Maria Khoreva danced her first performance as a member of the Mariinsky Ballet, she was already a superstar, with devoted Instagram fans following her life as a pupil in the Vaganova Academy (follow her @marachok). Her talent was already obvious—as were her exceptionally long lines, elegant technique and charisma—and when she joined the company's corps de ballet last summer, it was apparent that her artistry was also far beyond her 18 years.

Khoreva didn't last long in the corps: in November artistic director Yuri Fateev promoted her to first soloist, the Mariinsky's second-highest rank. Not even one year into Khoreva's professional career, her repertoire already includes the title role in Paquita, the lead in Balanchine's "Diamonds" and Terpsichore in his Apollo, plus Medora in Le Corsaire, which she is performing this week during the Mariinsky's annual tour to the Kennedy Center. Between performances in Washington, D.C., we spoke to Khoreva via Skype about her life in ballet, overcoming injuries and keeping in touch with 300,000 friends on Instagram.

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Ballet Stars
Jayme Thornton

This is Pointe's February/March 2019 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

When Natasha Sheehan debuted in The Sleeping Beauty's Bluebird pas de deux last season, she enchanted the San Francisco Ballet audience with her filigree footwork, elegant lines and effortless charisma. It was a big moment for the then-19-year-old, who was just beginning her second year in the corps, but it wasn't her first—Sheehan has been in the spotlight since she was a 16-year-old trainee in the company school.

That's when SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson gave her the lead in his Bartók Divertimento for the 2016 season gala, an evening featuring the company's biggest stars. Before that she was a cygnet in Swan Lake. "It felt like a dream," Sheehan says of getting featured roles so early. But it was also high-stakes. "During the 'Little Swans,' I could see Helgi watching me in the wings," she recalls vividly. "It was like, 'This is my one chance. I have to do this right.' "

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Ballet Careers
Chase Johnsey (second from right) in English National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Elliot Franks, Courtesy In The Lights PR.

George Balanchine famously said "Ballet is woman." He should have added that ballet is man, too, because it has long been defined by the traditional male-female binary. A formal challenge to the paradigm was launched in June, when Chase Johnsey was offered the opportunity to dance female corps roles in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty in London.

"I am a classical ballerina," says Johnsey, a freelance dancer who identifies as gender fluid and uses he/him/his pronouns. His ENB performance (in the mazurka and as a marchioness in the hunt scene; he also understudied a nymph) made headlines around the world and turned him into an activist for the cause—not to change classical ballet, but to open its doors to artists across the full spectrum of human gender. By hiring Johnsey, ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo put ballet's gender-exclusiveness on notice. "Our work and our company should reflect the world we live in," she stated via email. "Ballet should have no barriers; it's for everyone, everywhere."

Johnsey isn't alone. Jayna Ledford and Scout Alexander, two young transgender dancers, are training hard to break into the professional ballet world. We spoke with them about the dreams, achievements and challenges of nonbinary artists in the intensely gendered world of ballet.

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Ballet Stars
Weeks, a newly promoted SFB soloist, in Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

If a dancer is very lucky, and very prepared, one performance can transform their career. Lonnie Weeks was that dancer on the opening night of San Francisco Ballet's Unbound Festival in April. Chosen by Christopher Wheeldon for the emotionally wrenching final solo in Bound To, Weeks, 27, went onstage as a superb but largely unsung company artist. When the curtain came down 30 minutes later, he was, rightfully, a star.

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Ballet Stars
From Broadway's Billy Elliot to Bournonville, Redhead performs with effortless charisma. Photo by Klaus Vedfelt, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.

The Royal Danish Ballet's Ballet Festival in Copenhagen this June could have doubled as a showcase for corps dancer Liam Redhead, 23. On opening night, Redhead demonstrated his Bournonville mettle with a floating ballon and effortless charisma in Napoli's Act I ballabile. Then he delivered dazzling jumps as the Jester in artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe's Swan Lake, and later unleashed visceral power in Akram Khan's Vertical Road.

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