Coached by Gelsey
Gelsey Kirkland walks toward a group of teenage students in the middle of the studio. The dancers are practicing the tricky hops on pointe at the end of Swanilda's Act III variation from Coppélia. It's a stressful moment, and can easily read that way from the audience if a dancer tenses up. In her signature long-sleeve button-down shirt and tinted glasses, Kirkland offers a metaphor to better place their upper bodies over their standing leg. “You're practicing for your first child," she says with a smile, leaning over slightly to shake her finger at an imaginary toddler. The imagery doesn't just help the dancers better align their bodies; it gives them a physical focal point, out of the mirror and back into Swanilda's world.
For an hour and 10 minutes, Kirkland continues breaking down the same short section of the variation, with students divided into groups of four. Most corrections concern the eyes, rib cage, épaulement and port de bras. This kind of detailed coaching is a luxury most dancers never receive, yet it's par for the course at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet's summer Classical Repertory Workshop. The program offers advanced students a chance to study iconic roles under Kirkland. Her goal is clear. “It's important for dancers to understand how classroom technique, especially upper body technique, is related to the characters you create," she says. “You can't look a certain way in class and another way when you decide to create a character—it has to be joined."
Learning From a Legend
A principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre during the 1970s and '80s, Kirkland became famous as much for her struggles with perfectionism, eating disorders and drug addiction as for her portrayals of 19th-century classics. She chronicled her troubles and successful recovery in her autobiography, Dancing on My Grave. Yet the book also revealed an intensely analytical mind, one she channeled into teaching after she retired.
Kirkland and her husband, Michael Chernov, a former actor and dancer, founded GKA in 2010. The school has grown quickly, offering both full-day training and programs after school. Its curriculum is Vaganova-based, with a distinct emphasis on alignment, coordination and dramatic development, and also draws on Bournonville training. The pair added the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, a studio company, in 2013. Two years later, the school relocated to a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn, with four large studios and a 300-seat theater.
The industrial space easily accommodates GKA's four summer programs, three of which—the Classical Repertory Workshop, the Junior Dance Intensive and the Fast Track Program (a technique-based immersion course for less advanced students)—run simultaneously from June to early July. The Pre-Professional Intensive, held afterwards, is a more traditional summer program, while the Classical Repertory Workshop focuses distinctly on studying traditional repertoire. It offers advanced students the opportunity to dig into the classical cannon's most famous principal roles.
A Typical Day
Photo Courtesy GKA
The workshop accepts roughly 40 to 60 students (many of whom train at GKA year-round) split into several levels. Each day begins with core dynamics, a Pilates-based class that focuses on bringing the body into proper alignment. Technique, pointe and men's classes follow. Some students also take Chernov's remedial class, in which Chernov leads discussions and simple exercises on technique basics that dancers rarely have time to analyze otherwise. Each class has a specific focus, such as how to properly use the hips and turnout.
The second half of the day is devoted to repertory, with students learning different variations and group dances from the same ballet. The emphasis is strictly classical. “Because it's the most difficult," Kirkland explains, noting that students must understand classical fundamentals before moving on to freer neoclassical or contemporary styles. All students receive coaching from Kirkland, as well as several other GKA faculty members.
Finding Artistry in Technique
Although it may seem counterintuitive, there is no performance component. Instead, students give an informal showing for parents on Friday afternoons. “A performance creates pressure," says Chernov. “If you really want to dissolve into the work, it's better not to have an exam."
Former GKA student Megan Schwuchow appreciates that aspect of the program. “To me, artistry is more challenging," she says. “You feel like you're able to make mistakes and grow from them because you don't have to worry about performing."
Unlike the Pre-Professional Intensive, the Classical Repertory Workshop does not offer courses in acting or mime. Instead, Kirkland and Chernov stress the connection between classwork and character development. In other words, physically embodying an onstage persona begins with technique, rather than facial expressions and gestures. “Proper fifth position, the body mechanics of allongé—they've all been built into these variations," says Kirkland. “Your instrument has to be trained specifically or you can't do the second layer of acting."
Indeed, it's easy to see how her corrections in technique class translate to her coaching sessions. In both, she stresses which direction the head, body and eyes project during each step, and how to coordinate them. Her goal is to help students rely less on their image in the mirror and more on feeling their body from the inside. “If you're stuck in the mirror," says Kirkland, “that translates to the stage—it becomes just about you instead of your character."
While GKA teaches an interpretation of the Vaganova method, Russian training isn't necessary to get into the program. Neither is a picture-perfect body type. “Mainly, does the person have enough facility to do the exercises and are they interested in learning?" says Kirkland. “Students who are new will get a sense of character just by practicing what they're doing in class and how it relates to the variation. This simplicity is very difficult to achieve in a short amount of time—but at least they start to witness how it's all connected."
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Last week, we highlighted the deliberately, hysterically bad @biscuitballerina Instagram account, created by a then-mysterious dancer with a great sense of humor. This week, the artist behind @biscuitballerina—who turns out to be Royal Ballet of Flanders corps member Shelby Williams—got in touch with us to set the record straight about the intentions of those LOL-worthy posts.
Her photos and videos, with their exaggeratedly cringe-worthy technical flaws, are NOT meant to mock amateur dancers. Instead, Williams is actually hoping the account will help all dancers move past their shortcomings and accept themselves and their dancing.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.