A former dancer with Milwaukee Ballet Company, Candice Thompson received her MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She is a co-founder of DIYdancer, and currently based in Atlanta, GA.
While David Hallberg was recovering from Achilles tendinopathy, one of the treatments that the Australian Ballet rehab team gave him was a stair running exercise. "This is an exercise David needs to continue to do forever, every day," says AB's principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes.
The basic idea is to run up and down flights of stairs to the beat of a metronome in order to monitor and challenge the intensity and volume of loading on the Achilles tendon. The exercise simultaneously strengthens the tendon and provides a cardiovascular workout.
Back in 2002, dancer and choreographer Jonah Bokaer founded an art space in Brooklyn called Chez Bushwick. As Manhattan and Brooklyn were quickly becoming unaffordable, and many studio spaces were closing, Bokaer seized upon "creative placemaking"—the idea that the arts can play an integral role in community-building—before it became a buzzword. "We have been sustaining and maintaining one of the most affordable dance studios in New York State since the very beginning of my career," he says.
Fifteen years later, the challenges for choreographers in expensive urban centers continue unabated, and Bokaer has found his original mission magnified. While Chez Bushwick remains a haven for the next generation, there is also a growing number of young dancemakers who have been inspired to create their own residencies, communities and, ultimately, opportunities.
David Hallberg almost quit dancing two years ago. The international ballet star, whose talent and drive had made him the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, was struggling after a 2014 ankle surgery to repair a frayed deltoid ligament. A resulting mass of scar tissue ultimately required a second surgery. Impingements and Achilles tendinopathy hounded him, making it nearly impossible to plié, as he pushed to get back into the studio.
Meanwhile, he was fielding promising offers to direct companies and curate festivals. Unsure of himself, the American Ballet Theatre principal sought advice from ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie: Was it time to retire and move on to a leadership role, or was it worth giving his recovery another shot?
During her senior year of college, Erika Leeds flew to Philadelphia for an open call. She was one of more than 100 people who paid $25 to audition, with the hopes of landing a job. "Once we got there, we were told that there were currently no open spots in the company," says Leeds. She stayed for the promise of getting seen but walked away disappointed. "This whole thing was crazy: I paid to fly up here and audition, and they weren't hiring and barely saw us dance."
In other industries, paying a future employer for an interview would be considered unethical. Yet in dance, it is common practice. Many companies offer the explanation that it is expensive to hold open calls and in exchange for that fee, they are providing a class. Now, cash-strapped dancers and even some company leaders find themselves questioning this norm.
Having just returned to New York City after a couple weeks of guesting in Southeast Asia, American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin is in rehearsal for the lead role in Alexei Ratmansky's latest creation, Whipped Cream. In between this brief rehearsal period and ABT's Metropolitan Opera House season, Simkin will be using any days off to travel for other guest performances. That is, when he's not in production meetings or rehearsing in Chicago or New York for his own project premiering at the Guggenheim in the fall, or preparing his debut as Albrecht in Giselle for an ABT tour.
"If I have an hour break between rehearsals, I try to get my work done for the day," says Simkin. "There are emails, meetings, fundraising, a lot of administration stuff with the Guggenheim project, delegating, checking in—'Will Dior do the costumes?'—and then I might get a guesting invitation and then I have to check my schedule, book flights and hotels."
Daniil Simkin's Intensio project. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Fog envelops you as swans and sylphs flash right past your shoulder. This is Peter Leung's Night Fall, a new virtual reality 360 dance film featuring Dutch National Ballet. It puts you inside the "white acts" the film portrays as though you were a member of the corps.
Over the past year, ballet companies and premier artists have been creating new work and adapting existing ballets for the virtual reality world via 360-degree video technology. From English National Ballet's Giselle VR, a two-minute adaptation of Akram Khan's new production, to The Royal Ballet's snow scene from The Nutcracker, classical ballet is forging new partnerships with technology and entertainment companies to cross over into this new platform.
360-degree video technology offers unprecedented access and astounding visuals. Using an omnidirectional camera or several cameras, every angle is captured and the resulting footage stitched together. During playback online, the viewer has the option of exploring the entire panorama.
Worried your feet aren't good enough for a professional ballet career?
Good news: Most people, let alone dancers, have enough range of motion to go on pointe, says Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet.
"It is almost always a strength problem," she says. "Floppy or flat feet may be the result of weak intrinsic foot muscles."
Want to try a new summer intensive? How do you find out whether a program will be a good fit if you don't know anyone who went there? “We tell our students that faculty is a big factor, the ratio of students to teacher is important for quality instruction, and performance opportunities are great but not the be-all, end-all," says Nancy Davis, founder and co-artistic director of The Portland Ballet in Oregon. Before you sign up for a new program, research this information to assess whether a school offers what you're looking for.
Suss out the style.
One benefit to a new program can be experimenting with an unfamiliar style. While some intensives state up front that they teach a particular technique, others—particularly those not affiliated with a high-profile school or company—may not flag their stylistic emphasis. But program websites offer a lot of clues. Read the bio of the intensive's director (a good indicator of whether, say, Vaganova or Bournonville lies in their background) and the program's mission statement. Look at the regular faculty's bios to see where they danced. Also take a peek at the repertory. A big draw for The Portland Ballet's program, for instance, is its relationship with The George Balanchine Trust. Dig into its press clips, and you will find that students have performed iconic works like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.
Read the schedule.
Many students want as much training as they can possibly get in a day. “To pay for six weeks and only get a couple classes a day is not worth their while," says Westside School of Ballet artistic director Martine Harley, whose program in Santa Monica, California, has students dancing four and a half hours a day. Some programs even offer optional classes in the evening, if you are still standing at 6 pm. Generally, schedules are posted on the website. See how many hours of class is standard and whether you can add on extra ones.
Look at classes offered.
Serious about your technique? Be alert to specialty classes like Turns, one of the many offerings on The Portland Ballet's schedule along with music appreciation, dance history and career talks.
Check on class size.
If you are in a studio with 35 other dancers, you may not get the personal attention you need to improve. While most programs do not list their class size, look at the website descriptions and photos (and if necessary, be prepared to call and ask).
Find out if you'll perform.
Some students want stage experience from their intensive. If it is unclear whether there's an end-of-workshop show, or if there is no information about what repertory will be chosen for your level, ask. Even if it feels pushy, it's better to know than end up disappointed. Have your questions prepared ahead, and be polite and professional. You will show your maturity by making clear you take the experience seriously.
Imagine yourself there.
Nearly all the big programs use dorms, which offer camaraderie and social opportunities, not to mention meal plans. Smaller programs sometimes offer host families for out-of-town students instead. Depending on the school's location, there may also be affordable short-term rentals. Make sure you have housing, food and transportation mapped out so that you will have everything you need to concentrate fully on your dancing. Plan with an eye to making sure you will not end up feeling isolated.
Search alum bios.
Where do the school's graduates end up? Are they winning competitions? Getting hired by major companies? Often, some of the more famous alums may show up as guest faculty, such as New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck for the Westside School of Ballet. If a program is relatively unknown to you or your teachers, check out its track record to see where past students have landed.