What Directors Really Think of Ballet Dancers Going To College
In the ballet world, the phrase "going to college" is sometimes regarded as the musings of a dancer who's not really serious about their craft. Although schools like Juilliard and Bennington College have made degrees acceptable for modern dancers for decades, the competitive ballet world (which often follows a philosophy of "the younger the better") tends to discourage higher education.
But some ballet students just don't feel physically or emotionally ready to join a professional company at age 18, and others simply don't want to miss out on the college experience. So they choose to pursue an undergraduate dance degree to continue their ballet training in an academic atmosphere.
Gaining versatility at Butler University. Photo by Brent Smith, courtesy Butler
However, dancers need to understand how this decision will play out once they graduate. What do artistic directors—most of whom never chose to pursue a bachelor's degree themselves—think about this path? Do they see college as a four-year detour? Or have they come to appreciate the knowledge and experience dancers can obtain from this once unheard-of path to a ballet future?
The Benefits Graduates Bring
Setting yourself apart from the crowd is an essential part of getting that first job in a ballet company. Having demonstrated the ability to graduate with a degree while maintaining a high performance quality can be a fantastic way to get your foot in the door. "Knowing a dancer has that deeper arts education can make a difference—it sways in a positive way," says Devon Carney, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, where a handful of dancers hold degrees from schools like Indiana University. "Graduates are personally and artistically more level-headed. They have a better ability to deal with problems, and that maturity is something I highly value in a dancer."
Devon Carney teaching class. Photo by Ken Coit, courtesy KCB.
College dancers often graduate with life skills that students from a purely dance-oriented environment might not have gained. Often, they can better communicate both inside and outside of the studio, and they know how to shift subjects and organize a tight schedule as quickly as possible. By taking courses like ballet history, anatomy, nutrition, psychology, public speaking and piano, students become not only well-rounded employees, but assets to the ballet world.
"Dancers who have given themselves the opportunity to explore other sides of life have also given themselves the opportunity to understand that the world is bigger than the studio and stage," says Victoria Morgan, artistic director and CEO of Cincinnati Ballet. She earned both a BFA and an MFA in ballet from the University of Utah, and says she likes seeing a degree on a dancer's resumé. "It is confidence-building to know that there are options, and that confidence shows onstage."
Victoria Morgan. Photo by Daniel Wagner, courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
The Challenges Undergrads Face
The harsh truth is that obtaining a job in a professional ballet company is far from a guarantee. "Most programs sell a dream that they know they can't deliver," cautions Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, where hiring college graduates is far from common. He notes that a resumé listing connections and repertoire performed at school may provide entry to the audition studio, but dancers then have to prove their technical and artistic abilities.
Mikko Nissinen. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Many people in the ballet world still view most BFA programs as too dissimilar from the professional realm to be truly competitive. The insulated bubble of campus life can mean students don't realize they're not performing at a high enough level.
"Students need more exposure to the realities of what the professional world requires—they have to understand that if you want to get a job, there is no optional class, you have to be serious, show up day in and day out and know all your material," says Carney. In a company, you would lose your job for frequently missing rehearsals or eating in class, but in some dance departments, undergraduates may be allowed to slip in their professionalism.
Some directors feel the hardest part of attending college can be the many distractions, like parties, all-night study sessions, excessive drinking and a disregard for the basic human need to sleep. "Dancers must keep their bodies healthy and strong," says Julie Kent, artistic director of The Washington Ballet. "A lot of times the college lifestyle renders proper nutrition difficult."
Julie Kent. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy The Washington Ballet.
Even with limited dining-hall options and little time for cross-training, students must maintain their physical form in the same way a professional would. However, it is by no means impossible to keep up the daily intensity required to stay in shape: One of Kent's first hires after arriving at TWB was EunWon Lee, who earned a BFA from Korea National University of Arts in Seoul.
The key is staying passionate and competitive. If an undergrad wants a career in the professional ballet world, it is up to them to find an institution that provides the tools necessary to train at the level the industry requires, and then take advantage of every resource and opportunity to improve. College may not be the most common pathway to a professional ballet career, but it has all the potential in the world to develop artists who can change the art form for the better.
Last night, American Ballet Theatre held its annual Fall Gala at the David H. Koch Theater in New York City. To celebrate ABT's artistic director Kevin McKenzie's 25 years of leadership, dancers from ABT's company, apprentices, studio company members and students from the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis School took to the stage in Jessica Lang's The Gift, Alexei Ratmansky's Songs of Bukovina and Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions.
But we also love a good behind-the-scenes glimpse—especially when designer gowns are involved. And the dancers gave us plenty of glam looks to obsess over once the curtains closed. Ahead, see our favorite moments from gala straight from the dancers.
Devon Teuscher in the floral print suit of our dreams (by designer Patricia Bonaldi) practices her dance moves with Christine Shevchenko. Both girls accessorized with sparkling jewels from gala sponsor de Grisogono.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
Last week Ballet West breezed into New York City's Joyce Theater from Salt Lake City. The dancers are excellent—especially the women (what else is new). The company brought five pieces including works by Gerald Arpino, Val Caniparoli and resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte.
Arpino's last work, made in 2004, is a duet called RUTH, Ricordi per Due ("remembrance for two"). It's about a man haunted by the memory of the woman he loved. Christopher Ruud is strong and sensitive as the man, and Arolyn Williams is riveting as the ghost of his beloved.
Val Caniparoli energizes his dancers with juicy movement, and always sticks to his theme. (He doesn't ramble, and let's face it, long rambling choreography is a problem these days.) In his premiere for Ballet West, Dances for Lou, he takes on the music of Lou Harrison, a composer known for his Eastern sounds and rhythms.
Photo by Filip VanRoe, courtesy Marquee
Your Saturday nights are about to go from "Netflix and chill" to "Marquee and chill." (Okay, maybe we'll need to coin a new phrase).
But seriously, the new streaming app Marquee Arts TV lets you curl up with Bolshoi Ballet's Swan Lake, Sylvie Guillem dancing Mats Ek's solo Bye, a dance film by Cullberg Ballet called 40 M Under, or a documentary about Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. Marquee unlocks a world of digital arts: dance, theater, opera, music, documentaries and film shorts that you can stream directly to your TV or mobile device.
When Simone Forti moved from California to New York City in 1960, she brought with her the improvisational approach of Anna Halprin. As one of the first five students in Robert Dunn's John Cage–inspired composition course (that led to Judson Dance Theater), she was a magnet for two others in that class: Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. This month the three reunite for Tea for Three, an evening of moving and talking at Danspace Project, Oct. 26–28. It's a chance to see how dance mavericks grow and change and mellow. Forti will also give "Body Mind World" workshops Oct. 19–20. danspaceproject.org.
When you're dancing for what feels like eight days a week, it takes more than just stretching to put your body back in order. You need a good rub down. Unfortunately, most of us don't exactly have the money to afford an on-call personal masseuse.
The solution: Self-massage, with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, elbows and anything else that can help loosen up your muscles. We dug into Dance Magazine's archives to find the best pieces of advice we've published on the topic. Follow these rules to get what you, ahem, knead out of self-massage.
This week American Ballet Theatre launches its fall season at Lincoln Center with an exciting lineup of performances. One last-minute addition to the program is a new work from Benjamin Millepied, which will be performed by ABT Studio Company and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School dancers in the theater's promenade during select intermissions. Although the specifics of the performance are hush hush, we stepped into the studio with Millepied for an inside look.
What has it been like to choreograph on younger dancers and how, if at all, did you change your approach?
To be honest, they're really good. Rhythmically, it's not easy at all and they've done incredibly well. The piece could be longer. It's really one movement but, for the first time, to use that space it felt right. Nothing says I couldn't add two more movements next season to make it longer.
What are your thoughts on bringing classical ballet outside the proscenium setting?
For me, it's great to think of spaces theatrically. We build sets with lighting and props, but there are also all these environments that are beautiful and theatrical, and with a little bit of work you can create something within them and that becomes site-specific. That's really fun because you create something really specific for the environment.
What would you like to see more of from young ballet dancers?
What I would want to see more of in ballet is just more interesting collaborations. These ballet dancers are great and they're ready and what they need is more interesting work. I feel people are playing it safe a lot. If anything, I think it's the choreographers and the directors who need to make an effort for these dancers who have made this art form their passion, and to really be as daring or at least as relevant as some of our peers were when they were commissioning pieces a long time ago.
For many victims of recent natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria, the new "normal" involves power outages, food shortages and massive property damage. The dance community has stepped up to help by doing what they do best: This Sunday, October 22, members from major American companies will perform in two separate concerts in New York City, benefitting those affected by the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico.