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What It's Like to Go from Stardom to the Corps de Ballet: Betsy McBride
Some careers come together so organically that the dancer barely has time to take stock of how she got to where she is. That's how it was for Betsy McBride, at least until 2015.
Born in Coppell, a suburb of Dallas, McBride began taking ballet at her local school at age 3. At 14, she attended a summer intensive at the school affiliated with Texas Ballet Theater. Within a few weeks, McBride was offered a year-round place at the school with the tantalizing prospect of being hired by the company. Which is exactly what happened just a few months later. And there she stayed, eventually performing some of the most desirable roles in TBT's repertoire: Juliet, Odette/Odile, Aurora, the glamorous soloist in Balanchine's "Rubies," the title character in Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow.
PC Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT
As the 24-year-old brunette explains, "I wasn't even thinking about a career yet. It was all sort of a whirlwind, and I just went with it." She could have stayed where she was for the rest of her career, cycling through the classical roles and having new ones created for her by the company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson. "I grew up there—I was comfortable there," she says. But as time went on, she realized she was hungry for a change: a new company, a bigger city, longer seasons, opportunities to tour. "I was ready to go somewhere new and start over."
So early in 2015, she contacted American Ballet Theatre, hoping to arrange an audition. Though she was informed that there were no openings, she was invited to come to New York City to take class. She took them up on the offer, and made a good impression. By chance, a position opened up, and she was offered a contract. She made her debut with ABT as a nymph in The Sleeping Beauty toward the end of the 2015 Met season. (Encouraged by her success, her boyfriend, Simon Wexler, also auditioned and joined the corps a few months after her.)
McBride (left) in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. PC John Grigaitis
But the decision came at a cost: She had to trade in her life as a leading dancer for a place in the corps. "I've definitely struggled with it at times. It's weird, I'm new here, but I'm not new to being a professional. So I just try to keep doing what I need to do and not focus on that too much."
Her clear-eyed approach has already helped cement her place in the company. She has been given some opportunities: a little swan in Swan Lake, Fairy Fleur de farine in Alexei Ratmansky's historically minded Sleeping Beauty, Columbine in his Nutcracker. And more chances seem to be in store: She's rehearsing the role of the lead gypsy in Don Quixote and recently started learning the choreography for Olga, the younger sister in John Cranko's Onegin.
PC Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT
She realizes that nothing is automatic in a big company like ABT. She's fifth cast for Olga, which means she may not get to dance it for a while, if ever. As she puts it, "It's definitely a waiting game." Meanwhile, she's finding sustenance dancing in the corps. "It challenged me to go back to working with my peers and feeding off of each other. You feel that camaraderie and the ups and downs."
"Betsy is an extremely versatile dancer with a vibrant personality on the stage, and quick to learn," says Susan Jones, principal ballet mistress at ABT. "When she joined, it was as if she'd always been here."
Her adaptability was on display in a recent rehearsal of Ratmansky's new ballet Whipped Cream, in which she was creating the role of one of four "swirl girls." Even as she learned the complicated steps, she danced them full-out, with confidence.
It's easy to see why critics back in Texas used adjectives like "reckless" and "daring" to describe her dancing. And she's not timid about trying new things: "Sometimes Ratmansky asks us to do something that seems impossible. And then you realize, once you try it, that you can. It's been kind of a light bulb for me." It seems that with this move she's gotten even more than what she bargained for: a choreographer of international repute who can push her to new heights.
Mash-ups aren't uncommon in the dance world: Performers of varying styles have been known to share the stage, from ballerina Tiler Peck and famed clown Bill Irwin to Michelle Dorrance, who's mixed tappers and break-dancers. Likewise, collaborations between choreographers and artists from seemingly mismatched disciplines have produced magical creations, such as Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream, featuring Mark Ryden's whimsical and even grotesque designs and costumes.
But the Israeli troupe Ka'et Contemporary Dance Ensemble has found success in one of the most unlikely partnerships: Secular contemporary choreographer Ronen Itzhaki creates movement for a group of rabbis.
While undoubtedly best known for her dancing, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston has also been getting noticed for her style by Allure and Vogue—and with good reason. Her Instagram feed features a mix of on-trend athleisure wear and detailed dresses from runway designers like Valentino and Anna Sui, none of which would be complete without the makeup and hair to match. With a penchant for skin care and an ever-growing lipstick collection, Boylston talked us through some of her beauty must-haves on and off the stage.
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
DanceBreak came roaring back to life on Monday after seven years on hiatus, and six choreographers now have the opportunity to be the next Andy Blankenbuehler. Or Joshua Bergasse, Kelly Devine, Casey Nicholaw, Josh Prince or Josh Rhodes. These stellar Broadway choreographers all got their first big shows after Melinda Atwood's musical-theater launching pad let them show the industry what they could do.
Since 2002, DanceBreak has been a sort of "So You Think You Can Choreograph" for Broadway. Although not everyone goes straight there—Mandy Moore and Mia Michaels are alumni, too—the program is meant to funnel talented choreographers to the Broadway stage by providing a platform for their work. Prince, who introduced Atwood to the cheering crowd, has paid DanceBreak the ultimate compliment, creating his own non-profit incubator for theater choreographers, Broadway Dance Lab. On Monday, he recalled the story of how he was offered the role of choreographer on Broadway's Shrek just days after its director saw the 2007 edition.
When caring for your feet or trying to make them look good, it's tempting to seek shortcuts. Bad ideas—like dangerous stretches that promise perfect lines or ointments that were never meant to go on your toes—catch on all too easily backstage.
We asked podiatrists who've seen their dance clients try it all share the habits they'd like to see gone for good.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country: