Ballet Stars

Life has always taken Raychel Diane Weiner in unusual directions. “I tend to go wherever the wind blows,” she says. “I like to let things happen.”

A lot is happening these days for Weiner, who has left the corps of Ballet Arizona to join the cast of “Flesh and Bone,” a new original series about the ballet world that will run next year on the Starz Network. Weiner trained in Southern California with Charles Maple and Diane Lauridsen, at South Bay Ballet in Torrance. Her brother was a child actor and she often went on casting calls with him. His agent began representing her as well, and she ended up with several ads and children’s book covers. While she always loved dance, she didn’t focus on ballet until she was 15. “I don’t know if I was ready before that to not be a normal teenager,” Weiner says.

Once she decided to make ballet her priority, she amped up her studies and went on to perform with ABT Studio Company, St. Louis Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and, most recently, Ballet Arizona and San Francisco’s Post:Ballet. While still dancing with Ballet Arizona, Weiner heard about an open casting call for “Flesh and Bone,” and though she wasn’t interested in leaving the company, she sent in a resumé and head shot. “The next thing I knew, I was in New York auditioning in front of the executive producers and Ethan Stiefel.” Weiner knew Stiefel, who will choreograph the show, from Ballet Pacifica and from Stiefel and Stars, his summer program on Martha’s Vineyard. She was excited to be cast as the show’s unconventional demi-soloist Daphne, and even more excited at the prospect of portraying the lives of professional dancers in a drama.

“As a dancer, it’s been hard for me to watch certain shows or movies about the ballet world, because they’re so extreme,” says Weiner. “This show will be interesting because it’s scripted, not a reality show. There may be dramatic moments that aren’t necessarily realistic, but as far as the dancing, that will be 100 percent real.”

Weiner says she is unlike her character in some ways—Daphne grew up in a wealthy family in New York—but very much like her in others. “She’s no-nonsense,” Weiner says. “She has a tough exterior, but she’s actually one of the sweeter girls, kind of a cool chick. I have a lot of tattoos, and I was never interested in growing my hair out—I always said I can make a fake bun if I need to. Daphne has a bit of rebelliousness about her, too. I think we have  similar personalities—I’m really excited to play a kind of exaggerated version of myself.”


Fun Facts
Favorite tattoo:
“Three plumeria flowers in a cluster, one each for my mother, grandmother and best friend” 

Secret guilty pleasure: “Anything chocolate. I have to eat dessert with every meal—it’s not a meal if there’s not dessert.” 

Dream role: Juliet

Favorite hobby: Loves to sew and makes many of her own clothes
Unusual places to see her:
The covers of two Nancy Drew books: Werewolf in a Winter Wonderland and A Taste of Danger

Ballet Training

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.
Website: usaibc.com



Technique Tip:
?“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

Ballet Stars

Is there anything you would change about yourself as a dancer?
Sometimes I get hung up on certain steps or phrases. When you have a moment that doesn’t go well, it’s hard to let that go and continue as if it didn’t affect you.

Do you ever suffer from stage fright?
 I do when I have to deal with heights. In Swan Lake, I run all the way up this giant rock and jump off the top, which is terrifying for me. It’s a stunning ending, but my goodness!

How far along are you in the LEAP program at St. Mary’s College?
I’m very close to graduating. I really enjoy the management and business classes and might move on to business school. Recently I helped organize a fundraiser for the Children of Uganda, and found that to be fascinating.

Do you have any pointe shoe quirks?
I rosin my foot, because I don’t like to move in the shoe. I want it really tight, so it’s almost like my foot and the shoe are one.

You’ve done several music video projects, right?
My friend Sean Hayes is a local musician, though his music is all over now—it’s actually in one of the Subaru commercials. I’ve been in two of his music videos, including “When We Fall In,” which is on YouTube. He’s a sweetheart and I really love his music.  

Who inspires you as a dancer?
I’ve always admired Wendy Whelan. I took a class with her in New York once when I was 11 years old and I was terrified. She was so kind and sweet and generous. What I admire is not only that someone is phenomenal as a dancer or artist, but that they’re a really good person, too.

What is your favorite way to spend time outside of dance?
Relaxing with my friends and my boyfriend. I enjoy football, so I watch the games on Sunday. Also, though this might sound odd, I really enjoy cleaning! I’m a big organizer. It’s very meditative for me.

Ballet Training

From Russia To Michigan
The Midwest isn’t usually the first place you’d look for old-world technique. But for the past three Augusts, Michigan’s Russian Ballet Festival has brought in dancers from the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets, as well as Russian principals who currently dance in American companies, to train intermediate to professional-level students. “The Russian artists teach in a very detailed way,” says founder Sergey Raysevskiy. “Every gesture means something, every nuance is important.” Not only do students train with the Russian dancers, they also perform alongside them in a final gala.

The intensive is intimate, with 20 dancers in each of the three levels. The advanced dancers begin each day with a Vaganova technique class followed by pointe, variations, pas de deux or character and then two to four hours of rehearsal for the gala performance. Sixteen-year-old Maria Beck attended the festival in 2010, and is now a first-year student at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. “The festival prepared me physically and mentally for the academy,” she says. “It was tough, but I learned so much about artistry, and Russian head and arm positions.” This year’s program runs August 15–27. For more, see russianclassicalballet.com

Watch & Learn
As a presenter of many of today’s top dance companies, New York City’s Joyce Theater has earned a reputation as a go-to destination for exciting performances. In 2009, the theater began giving dancers in the audience an extra perk: master classes with the companies onstage. And now, with the opening of the Joyce’s new DANY (Dance Art New York) Studios, they’re amping up their class offerings. Over the past year, directors and choreographers from Lyon Opéra Ballet, Complexions, Cedar Lake and Richmond Ballet have offered classes to coincide with their Joyce performances. “It’s a unique opportunity for New York dancers to work with artists who aren’t usually in the area or don’t regularly offer classes,” says Joanne Robinson Hill, director of education. Students get a taste of the company’s style—and an extraordinary chance to network with directors who may be on the lookout for new dancers. Check out the list of upcoming artists offering class at joyce.org/studios/masterclasses.

New NYC Training Program
Want to polish off your technique under the eyes of a watchful coach? You might check out Sara Knight’s new S.L.K. Ballet in New York City. Knight opened her school last September to offer advanced dancers ages 15 to 18 intense, personalized attention during their last years before joining a company.

The first British dancer to graduate from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Knight gives a daily two-hour group technique class that follows a traditional Vaganova model: a set barre and center that change periodically, with special emphasis on the positions of the arms and head. Classes are kept at 10 to 15 students to ensure that each receives detailed, specialized corrections. Most of the focus, however, is on coaching students privately in technique, pointe or variations. Knight works with dancers one-on-one, often preparing them for competitions like Prix de Lausanne or Youth America Grand Prix. She also arranges opportunities for them to perform with regional companies.

Eighteen-year-old Emily Kadow, a former student of Knight’s who joins the corps of Ballet du Capitole in Toulouse, France, in September, can attest to Knight’s coaching abilities. “Sara spent the time and focused on my biggest weaknesses, which for me were jumps,” says Kadow. “She really helped me by making sure my heels were down in plié, and her Paris Opéra–based floor barre helped strengthen all my muscles.”

Prospective students  are invited to take class with Knight as an audition. S.L.K. Ballet also offers a four-week summer intensive. For more, visit slkballet.com.


Prix de Lausanne Tours The World
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Prix de Lausanne is launching a worldwide master class series. Former prizewinners who are current principal dancers have been recruited to teach aspiring local dancers in Tokyo, Sydney, Cape Town, Amsterdam and other cities. Each class ends with an info session for participants to learn more about
the prestigious ballet competition. On August 7, Wim Vanlessen, a principal from the Royal Ballet of Flanders, will be leading two classes in New York City. Any preprofessional dancer aged 14 to 18 is welcome to attend for a $25 fee. Class size is limited, so register early at prixdelausanne.org.


Ballet Stars

There’s a feeling of quiet intensity in the air at San Francisco Dance Center, where ballet master Arturo Fernandez is leading an open audition for Alonzo King LINES Ballet. After barre, director Alonzo King slips into the studio. With minimal fanfare, he takes up a position to one side, observing the dancers as they begin an adagio combination. Although LINES holds open calls a few times a year, it’s rare, he says frankly, to hire someone directly from an audition. King prefers to have dancers spend some time with the company in classes so he can really “see who they are” before they join the 11-member contemporary troupe. “I am drawn to people who aren’t playing Simon Says,” says King, “but who really have given a lot of thought to the science of movement.”

 

 

“Even if an audition doesn’t go my way, it’s an opportunity to learn,” says Little. “Did I not feel focused enough? Why was that? Can I fix it next time? I’ve done enough auditions to know that if I don’t get this, it’ll still be okay—something always comes along.”

 

 

Corina Kinnear, a senior in the LINES BFA program, waited until today to sew her pointe shoes so that she could keep herself busy—and her mind off her nerves. “I like to call my family before an audition,” she says. “It helps to remind me that I’m a person, not just a dancer.”

 

 

The dancers mark a combination before splitting up into groups. “I already took class in this studio beforehand,” says Jeffrey Ware. “I have to get comfortable in the space.”

 

 

Natalie Lambelet says, “I try to stay focused and be grounded. Find your center, don’t look left or right.”

 

 

“Remember that they are auditioning for you, too. So many times I’ve found myself in a situation where I think I might get the job, but in order to do that, I’d have to become someone I’m not.” —Natalie Lambelet

Ballet Stars

Kathleen Breen Combes knew at 14 that she wanted more serious training. A student at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique, Combes had gone to summer programs since she was 10. “I was always the one who wanted to stay for two more weeks,” says Combes, now a principal at Boston Ballet. “So it was easy to make the decision that I wanted an intense environment year-round.”

 

Tall and powerfully built, Combes felt that the Harid Conservatory could help her prepare for professional life. “Usually in your school, you’re the best one,” she notes ruefully, “and then all of a sudden, you have people around you who’re just as talented, just as focused.”

 

Dancers have to be made of tough stuff. Many decide to pursue a professional career in their teens, and make the choice to leave home to attend prestigious conservatories and ballet academies at a relatively young age. What are some pitfalls to watch out for and what are graceful ways to navigate the transition?

Is Year-Round Right For You?
How can a dancer tell whether she can handle a conservatory-style program? “I tell parents not to let their children go too soon,” says Yvonne Mounsey, director of Southern California’s Westside School of Ballet. Mounsey has seen scores of students make the jump to places like the School of American Ballet. “If they go too young, they either get injured or discouraged,” she says. “They’ve got to be ready—psychologically and physically— to handle being there for the year. When you go to SAB, there are going to be 30 dancers at the barre that are all tip-top.”

 

Attending a summer intensive, or two or three, can help students prepare. Gordon Wright, director of Harid, suggests that students check out a program thoroughly first. And he cautions that programs are not interchangeable. An intensive at Pacific Northwest Ballet School does not prepare you for a year-round session someplace else. “When you come to Harid it may be different from what you expect,” Wright explains. A summer—or two—at a program gives a student a chance to get to know the campus, the teachers, the expectations and the culture of a place. It’s a smart way to find out ahead whether it’s a good fit.

Ready Technically?
Predictably, feeling underprepared technically can be a  problem. At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, school director Marcia Dale Weary says she often tells new students that they should start in an intermediate level to work on the basics. Students who danced leads in their old schools often hesitate, she admits. However, it can build true confidence in your technique.

 

“The ones who do it have more of a chance at becoming professionals,” she says. “It’s up to the individual, how strong they are mentally and emotionally. Often if dancers come to us a little older, they get discouraged because they see younger ones who seem more advanced. But if they stay focused, I tell them they can get ahead of those children, because mentally they’re older and can understand what I’m explaining at a different level.”

 

“You can only go forward if you keep working,” Weary says. Combes agrees wholeheartedly, and says that to this day, the work ethic she formed as a student at Harid serves her as a professional in Boston Ballet. “There’s so much to be learned from watching those around you. You can learn from every dancer in the room. It’s helpful to see what other dancers do well and try to emulate it—and it’s far more productive than feeling competitive or threatened.”

Balancing Act
“The scary part,” says Miami City Ballet’s Sara Esty, “is when your parents get on the plane and that’s it. You’re there until Christmas.” Esty, who had attended Miami City Ballet’s summer program for three years, entered the company school with her twin sister Leigh-Ann right after graduating high school. She found there are a host of issues and feelings that take adjustment. “It was definitely tough,” Esty says, frankly. “I remember walking into class the first day and watching all the girls around me and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, these girls are no joke.’ ”

 

At schools like Harid and SAB, many dancers also find that they have to be more organized in order to get schoolwork done in the midst of rehearsals and classes. Courtney Lavine—a Virginia native who completed her junior and senior years at New York’s Professional Children’s School while she trained at SAB—says not only was it lonely being away from her mom, but the hectic back-and-forth between school and ballet classes was a whole new experience. Now an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre, she remembers that keeping priorities straight was a big part of it. “You have to mature very quickly,” she says. “New York City is…New York. You have to stay focused on your goals—some people get distracted easily.”

 

Self-discipline makes the difference, although in schools like SAB, the staff also tries to head off academic or emotional struggles. “Every student who comes into the residence hall has a staff member who is their adviser,” says Kelly Novitski, director of Student Life at SAB’s residence halls. “They can speak with that person about their roommates and how things are going in general. Also the advisers get report cards from the school. We try to keep a keen eye out.”

 

“It’s gonna be scary putting yourself into completely new surroundings, even though you’re doing what you love,” Esty says. “But if you’re following your heart, that will carry you through the tough times. You have to keep working hard and put your blinders on. Don’t worry about anybody else; just worry about you.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for San Francisco Chronicle.

Ballet Careers

For many professional ballet dancers, following the dream means a series of clear upward steps, from corps to soloist to principal. Until last year, you might have said that Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Alissa Dale was right on track.

 

A trainee with NBT in 2004, Dale got into the corps the next year and advanced to soloist in 2007. But in 2009, as NBT changed its artistic leadership, it also changed from a tiered company of principals, soloists and corps members to a 23-member ensemble of dancers, all equals—an unranked company.

 

Although staying with Nevada Ballet Theatre meant losing a title, Dale didn’t see herself as a casualty of the transition. “I’ve always been a fan of the ensemble system, so I was really excited,” she says. “It increases the competition, but it’s also an opportunity to work harder. You can’t take for granted where you stand in the company—you can be passed over if you sit back and don’t grab the reins. But that in turn increases your work ethic.”

 

Bucking the hierarchy laid out by the great European ballet institutions, more and more unranked companies are dotting the landscape of American ballet. The root of that model traces back to the “all-star, no star” Joffrey Ballet. “Robert Joffrey’s philosophy was that in a non-ranked company the strength lay in everyone, rather than resting on one or two featured artists,” says James Canfield, a Joffrey alumnus who took over the helm of NBT last year after serving as interim director for a year.

 

Famously egalitarian, Joffrey’s approach meant that his hard-working dancers might find themselves leading a ballet one night and dancing in the corps another. That sense of democracy is part of the rationale for unranked companies. “In a ranked company, everyone knows their place, so there’s an assuredness,” says Septime Webre, who has headed the unranked, 22-member Washington Ballet since 1999. “But in an unranked company, there’s a social mobility, shall we say?”

 

It’s an approach that has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, any dancer can earn a chance to shine in a leading role. But the lack of clear levels means that life becomes a daily competition with fellow dancers.

 

“There’s a sense of ‘on edge’ that you have to maintain,” says Travis Bradley, who is in his sixth season at Ballet Memphis. Bradley has also danced with the ranked Houston Ballet, but says he knew he wanted the opportunities available to small-company dancers. “Anytime a choreographer comes in, you can’t just rely on the advantage of status,” he says.

 

However, in many hierarchical companies, when a choreographer arrives to cast a new work, he or she is directed towards principals or soloists for leads. In an unranked company, every dancer has a shot. “When a stager or choreographer comes in, they’ll work with a huge group for a day, just to see how we move and who’s best for a role,” explains Nadia Iozzo, a dancer with the unranked Kansas City Ballet.  “And the senior dancers in our company aren’t necessarily guaranteed those principal roles. But they’ve put in their years and they’ve reached a certain excellence in technique and artistry and that elevates their work.”

 

Which brings us to the question: Are all unranked companies really that egalitarian, or will certain dancers implicitly still have a better chance of being cast in leading roles than others?

 

“Inevitably, some will rise to the top,” says William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet and another Joffrey alum. “But when a choreographer picks dancers, there is generally an element of surprise, too.”

 

“You feel like no matter who got chosen for a role, it was always fair game for everyone,” says Dale, who found herself cast as Myrtha in Giselle one year and in Canfield’s ensemble-driven Jungle the next. “You can’t get complacent.”

 

Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who founded Ballet Memphis in 1986, says that her unranked company’s roster needs to be proportionally sized for its relatively small city—but also ready for the eclectic repertoire she’s building. “A ranked system is an inefficient model for our company’s strengths,” she says. “I need nimble, versatile people.”

 

“It’s a democratic model, and we live in a democracy,” says Pugh with some warmth. “I feel like we need to reflect our culture. There’s something very American about a more level playing field.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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