Career

And...You're On!

A last-minute performance opportunity can be the biggest challenge—and the biggest break—of your career. Five dancers share their stories.

It’s a dancer’s nightmare: You’re thrown into a part last minute and you don’t know what you’re doing. With just a few hours—or minutes—to learn the steps, memorize spacing and grasp the musicality, you have to perform something you’ve barely rehearsed. The situation is high stress with high stakes, but it doesn’t have to be a bad dream. With the right approach, you can use the opportunity to tackle new roles and get noticed for even bigger parts in the future. 

Chelsea Adomaitis

Adomaitis only had 30 minutes to learn a new role in Rassemblement. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet

On tour, a girl in Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement got injured. I had been learning the ballet, but I thought: There’s no way they’re putting me on for her! It’s not my spot. Just as we were getting changed, they said Peter Boal needed to talk to me. He had seen that I was paying attention in rehearsal, so he had faith I knew what I was doing. It was the most stressful situation I could imagine. I had about 30 minutes.

I was wearing a costume for another ballet, with a French twist and diamond earrings. The first thing I did was breathe. Then I redid my hair into a low bun and got rid of the pointe shoes. Wardrobe cut up another girl’s leotard for me and gave me another dress lying around. I followed the ballet master into the studio to figure out the steps. I tried to focus on the choreography, nothing else, and we did it over and over for 20 minutes. 

The biggest challenge was keeping my body calm. The movement is grounded, core-centric and very dropped. I tried not to let the adrenaline make me shake. Usually I don’t worry about the steps and get lost in the movement onstage, but I absolutely could not do that. I had to keep thinking the whole time.

On the next tour, I was the understudy for every role.

Advice: Learn as much as you can, even roles you’re not scheduled to do. Anything can happen! 

Lillian DiPiazza

Pennsylvania Ballet soloist

DiPiazza cut steps to keep the musicality. Here, with Lorin Mathis in Emeralds. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy PAB.

I was scheduled to perform in the corps of Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina and was understudying the lead. But I hadn’t done the principal’s steps full-out since I wasn’t able to take space in rehearsals. Two days before the show, they told me I was going on!

Merrill Ashley rehearsed me and my partner for one and a half hours, since I still had a dress and a performance that night. We had no pianist, just a DVD that was extremely fast. The next day I got a stage rehearsal to go over spacing. My performance was my first real run-through! I had to cut out a step or two because it was so quick and I wasn’t keeping up. But I knew the music, and it was easy to cover. My feet were completely numb by the end. There’s no way I could have had the stamina I needed with such little time to prepare. Being thrown in at the last second, you don’t have the work built up behind it, or the confidence.

Ballo is lyrical, but it has a lot of sharp technical aspects that I hadn’t done a lot of, so it was a rare opportunity for me to show another side of my dancing. The next season I got promoted to soloist.

Advice: Get a lot of rest, even though you don’t want to sleep because you’re so excited!

Jason Hortin

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago member

Hortin relied on his cast mates. Here, in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Hubbard Street.

Eight years ago, when I was new to the company, I was a general cover for The Constant Shift of Pulse, by Doug Varone. I learned two or three roles, but never rehearsed them full-out in the studio. Then another dancer got bursitis in his knee.

I found out the night before. After about a half-hour or hour of rehearsal, I went over it by myself in the hotel room, figuring out which parts I knew, which ones I didn’t and the ones I needed clarification on. It was a group piece and I had to fit in. You can know all the steps, but to do them among other people is the only way to understand spacing. Luckily, the show went well. It was a combined effort from everyone, and the other dancers were really supportive. I showed that the company could count on me.

Advice: Intention plays a huge role. If you cover things well, it might not be what the choreographer wanted, but it’s not going to ruin the dance.

Christina Lynch Markham

Paul Taylor Dance Company member

Markham used repetition to memorize Black Tuesday. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy Taylor.

In my first season at Lincoln Center with the main company, someone fractured her foot the weekend before we opened. I had to forget everything I was doing in Black Tuesday and learn the “Big Bad Wolf” solo. What helped me most was repetition. I watched videos over and over, like cramming for a test. I would close my eyes and envision myself doing the movements very slow, to build a connection, and get faster and faster. Sometimes I would do it hyper-speed in my living room. Then I would go early to rehearsal and do it full-out. If I accidentally slipped up, I knew that I would slip up in the Taylor style.

Two hours before the show, I had such dread! I made myself breathe very deeply. The more grounded you are, the more you can shift your weight faster if you accidentally go the wrong way.

Onstage, I had a heightened awareness: I felt all my senses open, and my eyes were probably so wide I didn’t have to put eyeliner on! It was my job to make sure the audience got what they paid for. And for me, I got to dance a role that I probably would have had to wait years to perform. I didn’t want that to leave my grasp.

Advice: If you flub one count of eight, forgive yourself and don’t let it sabotage your entire season.

Erica Pereira

New York City Ballet soloist

I was getting ready to leave one afternoon when I found out I was going to do Raymonda Variations the next day. I had never seen any of the principal’s steps. I was so shocked! I had rehearsals right away: Joaquin De Luz and I worked for about an hour, then we had an onstage run where I did as much as I knew. Later, I had an hour to learn the rest, and another run the next day.

Pereira hopes her turn in Raymonda Variations leads to bigger opportunities. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.

The night before, I sewed shoes and watched the tape over and over. I actually slept really well—my mind was so exhausted, it just shut down. Onstage, I tried to stay calm and do one step at a time, take one entrance at a time. There were no mishaps. I was so happy!

I hope that because I did so well in such a short period of time, they’ll give me bigger opportunities. It would be really awesome if I got to do Raymonda again with more preparation. But I got three more shows of it right away, and tried to bring something new each time. I had a blast! It was like a party onstage. 

Advice: Remember, they can’t get mad at you: Even if you mess up, you’re still saving the day.

Former Pennsylvania Ballet principal Julie Diana is the executive director of Juneau Dance Theatre.

Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

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Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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